Gene expression, protein expression, and function of amiloride-sensitive sodium channels were examined in human lymphocytes from normal individuals and individuals with Liddle's disease. Using reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reactions, expression of all three cloned epithelial sodium channel (ENaC) subunits was detected in lymphocytes. Polyclonal antibodies to bovine alpha-ENaC bound to the plasma membrane of normal and Liddle's lymphocytes. A quantitative analysis of fluorescence-tagged ENaC antibodies indicated a 2.5-fold greater surface binding of the antibodies to Liddle's lymphocytes compared with normal lymphocytes. The relative binding intensity increased significantly (25%; p < 0.001) for both normal and Liddle's cells after treatment with 40 microM 8-CPT-cAMP. Amiloride-sensitive whole cell currents were recorded under basal and cAMP-treated conditions for both cell types. Liddle's cells had a 4.5-fold larger inward sodium conductance compared with normal cells. A specific 25% increase in the inward sodium current was observed in normal cells in response to cAMP treatment. Outside-out patches from both cell types under both treatment conditions revealed no obvious differences in the single channel conductance. The P(open) was 4.2 +/- 3.9% for patches from non-Liddle's cells, and 27.7 +/- 5.4% in patches from Liddle's lymphocytes. Biochemical purification of a protein complex, using the same antibodies used for the immunohistochemistry, yielded a functional sodium channel complex that was inhibited by amiloride when reconstituted into lipid vesicles and incorporated into planar lipid bilayers. These four independent methodologies yielded findings consistent with the hypotheses that human lymphocytes express functional, regulatable ENaC and that the mutation responsible for Liddle's disease induces excessive channel expression.