Vanadate has been used in many cellular systems to elucidate mechanisms of enzyme action. Vanadate inhibits Na-K adenosine triphosphatase (ATPase) activity in many tissues. In isolated collecting tubule it inhibits sodium transport and vasopressin-stimulated water flux, the latter presumably distal to cyclic AMP formation. Depending upon the tissue studied, vanadate also stimulates a variety of cellular reactions including adenylate cyclase, glucose oxidation and glycogen synthesis. We studied the effect of varying concentrations of vanadate on N-ethylmaleimide (NEM)-sensitive ATPase activity in microdissected segments of rat nephron. In proximal convoluted tubule and in cortical, medullary and papillary collecting ducts vanadate had no effect on enzyme activity. In medullary and cortical thick ascending limbs, however, vanadate significantly stimulated NEM-sensitive ATPase activity (medullary thick ascending limb, 241 +/- 14 pmol/mm/hr vs. 531 +/- 74 pmol/mm/hr; control vs. (1 mM) vanadate, respectively; n = 14, P less than 0.01). The stimulatory effect of vanadate on NEM-sensitive ATPase activity was present at 5 microM vanadate, a concentration that inhibited Na-K ATPase activity approximately 80%. Metabolic acidosis also stimulated enzyme activity in the thick ascending limb, and the effect of vanadate was not additive. Metabolic alkalosis had no effect on NEM-sensitive ATPase in the thick ascending limb, but the stimulatory effect of vanadate was still seen. These data document that the NEM-sensitive ATPase in thick ascending limb is different from that found in other nonmammalian proton secretory epithelia which are vanadate inhibitable. The results with vanadate plus metabolic acidosis suggest that both are acting via the same mechanism.