Smoltification involves morphological and physiological changes in the gills that prepare anadromous salmonids to osmoregulate efficiently in seawater. In a previous study, we found that different families of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) smolts vary in their ability to osmoregulate when abruptly transferred to cold seawater and that these differences are correlated with gill Na+/K+ ATPase activity. Here we extend these findings to test whether other key transport proteins, namely Na+/K+/2Cl(-) contransporter (NKCC) and the Cl- channel or cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR), play a significant role in osmoregulatory differences between families. To facilitate molecular analysis of NKCC, we first isolated a gill cDNA containing the complete coding region (1147 aa) of an isoform previously reported as a partial sequence. Phylogenetic analysis showed that this isoform is most closely related to isoforms of the NKCC I a subfamily found in European eel and Mozambique tilapia. In a second step, we quantified NKCC protein abundance as well as mRNA expression levels for NKCCl a and two CFTR isoforms (CFTRI and CFTRII) in 0+ smolts from three families prior to and following seawater transfer. The family with the lowest salinity tolerance also showed significant increases in gill NKCC I a mRNA after seawater transfer. Taken together with our previous study, these data indicate that family differences in expression of transport proteins are in part related to salinity tolerance, although the best indicator of osmoregulatory performance between families may be gill Na+/K+ ATPase activity and CFTR I mRNA levels, rather than Na+/K+ ATPase and NKCC I a mRNA levels or NKCC protein abundance. (c) 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.