Mammalian aquaporins constitute a family of so far 10 related water channel proteins which mediate osmotically driven water fluxes across the plasma membrane. Because regulation of the ionic composition and osmolality of inner ear fluids is of great functional significance, we investigated the expression patterns of aquaporins in five defined areas of the rat inner ear by RT-PCR. The tissues used were stria vascularis, endolymphatic sac, Reissner's membrane, vestibulum and organ of Corti. Aquaporin 1 transcripts were detected in all tissues and are probably constitutive. Aquaporin 5 was only expressed in the organ of Corti and in Reissner's membrane. We show that aquaporin 2, so far considered to be specific to the principal cells of the renal collecting duct, is expressed in the endolymphatic sac. Aquaporin 2 expression was not detected in any other inner ear region. The postnatal appearance of aquaporin 2 transcripts in the endolymphatic sac resembled that in the kidney, i.e. it increased postnatally until day 4. The full-length DNA for aquaporin 2 was cloned from cDNA of the endolymphatic sac. It had an irrelevant Ile54Thr mutation because it could be functionally expressed in Xenopus oocytes. Also exclusively in the endolymphatic sac of the inner ear, we detected transcripts for aquaporin isoforms 3 and 4 which are known to be expressed in the renal principal cells. In the kidney, aquaporin 2 regulation involves vasopressin-stimulated, cAMP-dependent phosphorylation of Ser256 of aquaporin 2 which is stored in cytosolic vesicles. These storage vesicles also contain a serpentine calcium/polycation-sensing receptor. Vesicle shuffling to the plasma membrane involves proteins such as vesicle-associated membrane protein VAMP2, syntaxin-4 and the small GTPase Rab3a. Using RT-PCR we were able to demonstrate the expression of all of these components. By analogy the data suggest that in the endolymphatic sac of the inner ear a system for cellular water permeability is in place which may share many similarities with that characterized in the principal cells of the renal collecting duct. These findings may have a number of interesting pharmacological implications which need to be addressed in future studies.