Organic mercurials inhibit mitochondrial glutamine metabolism in vitro while metabolic acidosis, a condition in which the predominant renal fuel is glutamine, potentiates mercurial diuresis. The following studies were undertaken to determine whether potentiation of diuresis reflects mercurial inhibition of glutamine utilization. (1) All three mercurials employed (mersalyl, chlormerodrin, and p-chloromercuribenzoate) are diuretics in the rat and this effect was potentiated by NH4Cl. (2) Despite reabsorbing less sodium, mercurial-treated rats had lower kidney ATP content (4.35 +/- 0.26 and 3.84 +/- 0.43 mumol/g dry weight (mercurial plus NH4Cl) than did controls (4.95 +/- 0.31 and 4.87 +/- 0.39 mumol/g dry weight (NH4Cl). (3) Isolated kidneys from NH4Cl and NH4Cl plus mercurial treated rats were perfused with 1 mM L-[U-14C]glutamine to determine rates of extraction and oxidation. Mercurial-treated acidotic rat kidneys had a reduced rate of glutamine uptake (40.8 +/- 7.4 vs. 64.8 +/- 5.8 mumol/h per kidney), a diminished rate of glutamine conversion to CO2 (14.8 +/- 3.6 vs. 26.4 +/- 5.2 mumol/h per kidney), and a reduction in glucose production (16 +/- 5 vs. 27 +/- 4 mumol/h per kidney). These results are consistent with an effect of organic mercurials upon glutamine utilization, limiting ATP availability, and thereby reducing tubular active sodium reabsorption.