The zebrafish genome encodes two slc4a1 genes, one expressed in erythroid tissues and the other in the HR (H(+)-ATPase-rich) type of embryonic skin ionocytes, and two slc4a2 genes, one in proximal pronephric duct and the other in several extrarenal tissues of the embryo. We now report cDNA cloning and functional characterization of zebrafish slc4a3/ae3 gene products. The single ae3 gene on chromosome 9 generates at least two low-abundance ae3 transcripts differing only in their 5'-untranslated regions and encoding a single definitive Ae3 polypeptide of 1170 amino acids. The 7 kb upstream of the apparent initiator Met in ae3 exon 3 comprises multiple diverse, mobile repeat elements which disrupt and appear to truncate the Ae3 N-terminal amino acid sequence that would otherwise align with brain Ae3 of other species. Embryonic ae3 mRNA expression was detected by whole mount in situ hybridization only in fin buds at 24-72 hpf, but was detectable by RT-PCR across a range of embryonic and adult tissues. Epitope-tagged Ae3 polypeptide was expressed at or near the surface of Xenopus oocytes, and mediated low rates of DIDS-sensitive (36)Cl(-)/Cl(-) exchange in influx and efflux assays. As previously reported for Ae2 polypeptides, (36)Cl(-) transport by Ae3 was inhibited by both extracellular and intracellular acidic pH, and stimulated by alkaline pH. However, zebrafish Ae3 differed from Ae2 polypeptides in its insensitivity to NH4Cl and to hypertonicity. We conclude that multiple repeat elements have disrupted the 5'-end of the zebrafish ae3 gene, associated with N-terminal truncation of the protein and reduced anion transport activity.