Several conflicting models have been used to characterize the gating behavior of the cardiac delayed rectifier. In this study, whole-cell delayed rectifier currents were measured in voltage-clamped guinea pig ventricular myocytes, and a minimal model which reproduced the observed kinetic behavior was identified. First, whole-cell potassium currents between -10 and +70 mV were recorded using external solutions designed to eliminate Na and Ca currents and two components of time-dependent outward current were found. One component was a La3(+)-sensitive current which inactivated and resembled the transient outward current described in other cell types; single-channel observations confirmed the presence of a transient outward current in these guinea pig ventricular cells (gamma = 9.9 pS, [K]o = 4.5 mM). Analysis of envelopes of tail amplitudes demonstrated that this component was absent in solutions containing 30-100 microM La3+. The remaining time-dependent current, IK, activated with a sigmoidal time course that was well-characterized by three time constants. Nonlinear least-squares fits of a four-state Markovian chain model (closed - closed - closed - open) to IK activation were therefore compared to other models previously used to characterize IK gating: n2 and n4 Hodgkin-Huxley models and a Markovian chain model with only two closed states. In each case the four-state model was significantly better (P less than 0.05). The failure of the Hodgkin-Huxley models to adequately describe the macroscopic current indicates that identical and independent gating particles should not be assumed for this K channel. The voltage-dependent terms describing the rate constants for the four-state model were then derived using a global fitting approach for IK data obtained over a wide range of potentials (-80 to +70 mV). The fit was significantly improved by including a term representing the membrane dipole forces (P less than 0.01). The resulting rate constants predicted long single-channel openings (greater than 1 s) at voltages greater than 0 mV. In cell-attached patches, single delayed rectifier channels which had a mean chord conductance of 5.4 pS at +60 mV ([K]o = 4.5 mM) were recorded for brief periods. These channels exhibited behavior predicted by the four-state model: long openings and latency distributions with delayed peaks. These results suggest that the cardiac delayed rectifier undergoes at least two major transitions between closed states before opening upon depolarization.

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