Osmotic water permeability (Pf) in toad bladder is regulated by the vasopressin (VP)-dependent movement of vesicles containing water channels between the cytoplasm and apical membrane of granular cells. Apical endosomes formed in the presence of serosal VP have the highest Pf of any biological or artificial membrane (Shi and Verkman. 1989. J. Gen. Physiol. 94:1101-1115). We examine here: (a) the influence of protein kinase A and C effectors on transepithelial Pf (Pfte) in intact bladders and on the number and Pf of labeled endosomes, and (b) whether endosome Pf can be modified physically or biochemically. In paired hemibladder studies, Pfte induced by maximal serosal VP (50 mU/ml, 0.03 cm/s) was not different than that induced by 8-Br-cAMP (1 mM), forskolin (50 microM), VP + 8-Br-cAMP, or VP + forskolin. Pf was measured in endosomes labeled in intact bladders with carboxyfluorescein by a stopped-flow, fluorescence-quenching assay using an isolated microsomal suspension; the number and Pf (0.08-0.11 cm/s, 18 degrees C) of labeled endosomes was not different in bladders treated with VP, forskolin, and 8-Br-cAMP. Protein kinase C activation by 1 microM mucosal phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) induced submaximal bladder Pfte (0.015 cm/s) and endosome Pf (0.022 cm/s) in the absence of VP, but had little effect on maximal Pfte and endosome Pf induced by VP. However, PMA increased by threefold the number of apical endosomes with high Pf formed in response to serosal VP. Pf of endosomes containing the VP-sensitive water channel decreased fourfold by increasing membrane fluidity with hexanol or chloroform (0-75 mM); Pf of phosphatidylcholine liposomes (0.002 cm/s) increased 2.5-fold under the same conditions. Endosome Pf was mildly pH dependent, strongly inhibited by HgCl2, but not significantly altered by GTP gamma S, Ca, ATP + protein kinase A, and phosphatase action. We conclude that: (a) water channels cycled in endocytic vesicles are functional and not subject to physiological regulation, (b) VP and forskolin do not have cAMP-independent cellular actions, (c) activation of protein kinase C stimulates trafficking of water channels, but does not increase the number of apical membrane water channels induced by maximal VP, and (d) water channel function is sensitive to membrane fluidity. By using VP and PMA together, large quantities of endosomes containing the VP-sensitive water channel are labeled with fluid-phase endocytic markers.