Substrate specificity of the p-aminohippurate (PAH) transport system was investigated in the OK kidney epithelial cells. PAH uptake by OK cells from the basal side was inhibited by beta-lactam antibiotics such as benzylpenicillin (PCG) and cefazolin. The inhibition of PAH uptake by PCG was competitive and the Ki value was calculated as 108.8 microM. Transcellular transport of PCG across OK cell monolayers occurred unidirectionally from the basal to apical side, and transcellular transport and basolateral uptake were inhibited by PAH, probenecid and beta-lactam antibiotics. The basolateral uptake of cefazolin and cefotiam was also inhibited by PAH and probenecid. The basolateral uptake of PAH and PCG were not affected by aliphatic dicarboxylates with 3 or 4 carbon atoms, but were strongly inhibited by those with 5 or 6 carbon atoms. The inhibitory effect became weaker for a longer dicarboxylate with 7 carbon atoms, then increased again with increasing number of carbon atoms. Such a pattern of inhibition by dicarboxylates is essentially the same with that observed in rat renal proximal tubules in situ. These findings suggest that the PAH transport system in OK cells has a substrate specificity similar to that in rat renal proximal tubules, which is involved in the active secretion of various organic anions including drugs.