The histidine-reactive reagent, diethyl pyrocarbonate (DEPC) inhibits the human amiloride-sensitive Na+/H+ exchanger (NHE1) in stably transfected fibroblasts. NHE1 was protected by cimetidine and amiloride from DEPC, and DEPC inhibition was reversed with hydroxylamine, suggesting a role for critical histidine groups in NHE activity. We replaced the histidines (H) in putative transmembrane domains (H35, H120, H349) with glycine (G) using site- directed mutagenesis. There was no significant change in NHE activity of the H120G; H349G; H120,349G; and H35,120,349G mutants compared with wild type. The 50% inhibition concentration values for amiloride, ethyl isopropyl amiloride (EIPA), and cimetidine of the H349G mutant were significantly increased compared with the wild-type NHE1. We also examined the DEPC effect on the transport activity of the triple histidine mutant (H35,120,349G) and found that NHE1 activity was still inhibited by DEPC with reversal by hydroxylamine and protected by amiloride and cimetidine. Kinetic analysis of DEPC inhibition indicated that two 'critical' histidine residues are required for NHE transport activity. Substitutions of H349 with asparagine (N), glutamine (Q), serine (S), tyrosine (Y), valine (V), leucine (L), and phenylalanine (F) were also examined. There were no changes in NHE activity of these mutants compared with wild type. The H349G and H349L mutants became more resistant to amiloride, whereas the H349Y and H349F mutants became more sensitive to amiloride. The H349S (mimics NHE3) and H349Y (mimics NHE4) mutations had only modest effects on amiloride sensitivity. These results indicate that H349 affects the interaction of NHE1 with its inhibitors, even though substitutions at this site, per se, do not appear to explain the differences in amiloride sensitivity between different NHE isoforms. Despite clear-cut effects of the H349G mutation on the competitive interaction of NHE1 with cimetidine and EIPA, this mutation did not affect the affinity of NHE1 for its cationic substrates (Na+, Li+).