Escherichia coli can use nitrate as a terminal electron acceptor for anaerobic respiration. A polytopic membrane protein, termed NarK, has been implicated in nitrate uptake and nitrite excretion and is thought to function as a nitrate/nitrite antiporter. The longest-lived radioactive isotope of nitrogen, 13N-nitrate (half-life = 9.96 min) and the nitrite-sensitive fluorophore N-(ethoxycarbonylmethyl)-6-methoxyquinolinium bromide have now been used to define the function of NarK. At low concentrations of nitrate, NarK mediates the electrogenic excretion of nitrite rather than nitrate/nitrite exchange. This process prevents intracellular accumulation of toxic levels of nitrite and allows further detoxification in the periplasm through the action of nitrite reductase.