In the retinae of many vertebrates, there are classes of horizontal cell that probably utilize gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) as a neurotransmitter. As with other amino acid transmitter agents, the postsynaptic action of GABA is thought to be terminated by uptake into neurons and glia surrounding the release site. The present study examined whether an uptake system for GABA could be detected in isolated skate horizontal cells by means of electrophysiological methods. Pressure ejection of GABA onto voltage-clamped horizontal cells produced an inward current that showed no sign of desensitization regardless of the GABA concentration. The dose-response relationship followed simple Michaelis-Menten kinetics, with a half-maximal response elicited at approximately 110 microM. Nipecotic acid produced a similar current and reduced the responses to GABA when introduced in the bath solution prior to the GABA pulse. On the other hand, application of 500 microM muscimol or 1 mM baclofen, GABAA and GABAB receptor agonists, respectively, were completely without effect. The GABA-induced current was not blocked by superfusion with 500 microM bicuculline, 500 microM picrotoxin, or 500 microM phaclofen. However, the responses to GABA were abolished when the cells were superfused in Ringer's solution in which choline or lithium had been substituted for sodium, and were reduced when the extracellular chloride concentration was decreased from 266 mM to 16 mM. Current-voltage data showed a maximal response to GABA when the cells were held at or below their resting potential. At more depolarized levels, the inward current became progressively smaller until, near +50 mV, it could no longer be detected; over the range tested (-90 to +50 mV), the response never reversed into an outward current. These findings suggest that the GABA-induced currents in skate horizontal cells are mediated by an electrogenic uptake mechanism.