We have examined the actions of histidine-specific reagents on potassium channels in squid giant axons. External application of 20-500 microM diethylpyrocarbonate (DEP) slowed the opening of potassium channels with little or no effect on closing rates. Sodium channels were not affected by these low external concentrations of DEP. Internal application of up to 2 mM DEP had no effect on potassium channel kinetics. Steady-state potassium channel currents were reduced in an apparently voltage-dependent manner by external treatment with this reagent. The shape of the instantaneous current-voltage relation was not altered. The voltage-dependent probability of channel opening was shifted toward more positive membrane potentials, thus accounting for the apparent voltage-dependent reduction of steady-state current. Histidine-specific photo-oxidation catalyzed by rose bengal produced alterations in potassium channel properties similar to those observed with DEP. The rate of action of DEP was consistent with a single kinetic class of histidine residues. In contrast to the effects on ionic currents, potassium channel gating currents were not modified by treatment with DEP. These results suggest the existence of a histidyl group (or groups) on the external surface of potassium channels important for a weakly voltage-dependent conformational transition. These effects can be reproduced by a simple kinetic model of potassium channels.

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