Exocrine gland cells secrete Cl(-)-rich fluid when stimulated by neurotransmitters or hormones. This is generally ascribed to a rise in cytosolic Ca2+ concentration ([Ca2+]i), which leads to activation of Ca2(+)-dependent ion channels. A precise understanding of Cl- secretion from these cells has been hampered by a lack of knowledge about the spatial distribution of the Ca2+ signal and of the Ca2(+)-dependent ion channels in the secreting epithelial cells. We have now used the whole-cell patch-clamp method and digital imaging of [Ca2+]i to examine the response of rat pancreatic acinar cells to acetylcholine. We found a polarization of [Ca2+]i elevation and ion channel activation, and suggest that this comprises a novel 'push-pull' mechanism for unidirectional Cl- secretion. This mechanism would represent a role for cytosolic Ca2+ gradients in cellular function. The cytosolic [Ca2+]i gradients and oscillations of many other cells could have similar roles.