The physiology and evolution of urea transport in fishes

M. D. McDonald, C. P. Smith, P. J. Walsh

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


This review summarizes what is currently known about urea transporters in fishes in the context of their physiology and evolution within the vertebrates. The existence of urea transporters has been investigated in red blood cells and hepatocytes of fish as well as in renal and branchial cells. Little is known about urea transport in red blood cells and hepatocytes, in fact, urea transporters are not believed to be present in the erythrocytes of elasmobranchs nor in teleost fish. What little physiological evidence there is for urea transport across fish hepatocytes is not supported by molecular evidence and could be explained by other transporters. In contrast, early findings on elasmobranch renal urea transporters were the impetus for research in other organisms. Urea transport in both the elasmobranch kidney and gill functions to retain urea within the animal against a massive concentration gradient with the environment. Information on branchial and renal urea transporters in teleost fish is recent in comparison but in teleosts urea transporters appear to function for excretion and not retention as in elasmobranchs. The presence of urea transporters in fish that produce a copious amount of urea, such as elasmobranchs and ureotelic teleosts, is reasonable. However, the existence of urea transporters in ammoniotelic fish is curious and could likely be due to their ability to manufacture urea early in life as a means to avoid ammonia toxicity. It is believed that the facilitated diffusion urea transporter (UT) gene family has undergone major evolutionary changes, likely in association with the role of urea transport in the evolution of terrestriality in the vertebrates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)93-107
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Membrane Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 2006


  • Active transport
  • Excretion
  • Facilitated diffusion
  • Gill
  • Kidney
  • UT-A

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Physiology
  • Cell Biology


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