It is accepted that bicarbonate reabsorption in the proximal tubule is mediated by H+ secretion, but several aspects of this process have remained controversial. To examine some of these issues, we have developed a model that allows for spatial variations in the concentrations of CO2, HCO3-, and H2CO3 within the tubule lumen and cell cytoplasm, passive transport of these substances across cell membranes, carbonic anhydrase-catalyzed interconversion of HCO3- and CO2 within the cell and at the luminal membrane surface, and the corresponding uncatalyzed reactions in lumen and cell. Most of the required kinetic and transport parameters were estimated from physicochemical data in the literature, whereas intracellular pH and HCO3- permeability at the basal cell membrane, found to be the most significant parameters under normal conditions, were adjusted to yield reabsorption rates of "total CO2" (tCO2, the sum of CO2, HCO3- and H2CO3) comparable to measured values in the rat. Our results suggest that for normal carbonic anhydrase activity, almost all tCO2 leaves the lumen as CO2, yet the transepithelial differences in CO2 partial pressure does not exceed approximately 2 mm Hg. Electrochemical potential gradients favor substantial passive backleak of HCO3- from cell to lumen. Gradients in CO2 partial pressure remain small during simulated inhibition of carbonic anhydrase, with approximately 70% of tCO2 leaving the lumen as H2CO3 in this case, and the remainder as CO2. Predicted tCO2 reabsorption rates for carbonic anhydrase inhibition are approximately of normal, in good agreement with recent measurements in the rat, indicating that the concept of "carbonic acid recycling" is viable
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