Osteoclasts resorb bone by first attaching to the bone surface and then secreting protons into an isolated extracellular compartment formed at the cell-bone attachment site. This secretion of protons (local acidification) is required to solubilize bone hydroxyapatite crystals and for activity of bone collagen-degrading acid proteases. However, the large quantity of protons required, 2 mol/mol of calcium, would result in an equal accumulation of cytosolic base equivalents. This alkaline load must be corrected to maintain cytosolic pH within physiologic limits. In this study, we have measured cytoplasmic pH with pH-sensitive fluorescent compounds, while varying the extracellular ionic composition of the medium, to determine the nature of the compensatory mechanism used by osteoclasts during bone resorption. Our data show that osteoclasts possess a chloride/bicarbonate exchanger that enables them to maintain normal intracellular pH in the face of a significant proton efflux. This conclusion follows from the demonstration of a dramatic cytoplasmic acidification when osteoclasts that have been incubated in bicarbonate-containing medium are transferred into bicarbonate-free medium. This acidification is absolutely dependent on and proportional to medium [Cl-]. Furthermore, acidification is inhibited by the classic inhibitor of red cell anion exchange, 4,4'-diisothiocyanatostilbene-2,2'-disulfonate, and by diphenylamine-2-carboxylate, an inhibitor of chloride specific channels. However, the acidification process is neither energy nor sodium dependent. The physiologic importance of chloride/bicarbonate exchange is demonstrated by the chloride dependence of recovery from an endogenous or exogenous alkaline load in osteoclasts. We conclude that chloride/bicarbonate exchange is in large part responsible for cytoplasmic pH homeostasis of active osteoclasts, showing that these cells are similar to renal tubular epithelial cells in their regulation of intracellular pH.