The present study investigated the mechanism involved when fish tighten their gill membrane after transfer to dilute media. Ten individually assayed eels adapted to fresh water (EW) and labelled with radioactive Na-22 in the plasma showed mean exchange rates in equilibrium with ambient radioactive Na-24 in FW at 70 mu mol kg(-1) h(-1). Just after transfer to demineralized water (DW), the mean Na+ release rate went up to 120 mu molkg(-1) h(-1); after 24 h in DW it came down again and levelled off at 40 mu mol kg(-1) h(-1) during a period of up to 2 weeks. During the same period the mean Na+ uptake rate was 12 mu mol kg(-1) h(-1), i.e., the general picture in DW was a net Na+ loss. In another similar experiment, groups of three FW-adapted eels were incubated in vivo for up to 24 h with (C-14) acetate added as lipid precursor to the ambient water. Incubation in FW showed about 20% of the total C-14-activity incorporated into gill lipids as (C-14) wax alcohols (WA; octadecanol and eicosanol). This percentage went up to 50% shortly after transfer to DW and came down again to about 20% after 2 weeks in DW. Single eels labelled with Na-22 in the plasma showed a statistically significant positive linear correlation of percentage (14C) wax alcohols with log [22Na efflux]. Based on the observed parallel between Naf flux and gill lipid metabolism, it is suggested that the eel reacts at first to a loss of Na+ by synthesizing wax alcohols that can tighten the gill membrane. (C) 1999 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.