Conjugation of xenobiotics with glutathione occurs commonly within the liver, and these glutathione conjugates are then preferentially excreted into bile. We have characterized this excretory process using primary cultured hepatocytes (24 h). 1-Chloro-2,4-dinitrobenzene rapidly entered the cells and formed a glutathione conjugate, S-(dinitrophenyl)glutathione, irrespective of the temperature of incubation. In contrast, the efflux of the glutathione conjugate was essentially absent in the cold but recovered rapidly upon rewarming of the cells. Therefore, initial rates of efflux of the conjugate at 37 degrees C were measured from cells preloaded biosynthetically at 10 degrees C. Efflux was a saturable process with respect to intracellular S-(dinitrophenyl)glutathione with an apparent Km of 0.58 +/- 0.12 mM and Vmax of 0.15 +/- 0.05 nmol/min/mg of protein. The excretion of S-(dinitrophenyl)glutathione had an energy of activation of 15.3 kcal/mol. The glutathione conjugate of p-nitrobenzylchloride when formed within the hepatocytes acted as a competitive inhibitor of S-(dinitrophenyl)glutathione efflux. Cultured hepatocytes, therefore, appeared to have a specific transport process for the excretion of glutathione conjugates. The addition of S-(dinitrophenyl)glutathione, but not GSH, GSSG, or methionine, to the medium caused a decrease in the rate of efflux of radiolabeled S-(dinitrophenyl)glutathione. The hepatocytes were able, however, to excrete the glutathione conjugate against an excess of extracellular S-(dinitrophenyl)glutathione. This observation suggested that extracellular S-(dinitrophenyl)glutathione, although capable of binding to the carrier, entered the hepatocytes quite slowly relative to rates of efflux. This carrier may function in a manner that would minimize the reuptake by hepatocytes of conjugates that have been excreted into the bile.