Permeant ion species was found to profoundly affect the gating kinetics of type l K+ currents in mouse T lymphocytes studied with the whole-cell or on-cell patch gigaohm-seal techniques. Replacing external K+ with Rb+ (as the sole monovalent cation, at 160 mM) shifted the peak conductance voltage (g-V) relation by approximately 20 mV to more negative potentials, while NH4+ shifted the g-V curve by 15 mV to more positive potentials. Deactivation (the tail current time constant, tau tail) was slowed by an average of 14-fold at -70 mV in external Rb+, by approximately 8-fold in Cs+, and by a factor of two to three in NH4+. Changing the external K+ concentration, [K+]o, from 4.5 to 160 mM or [Rb+]o from 10 to 160 mM had no effect on tau tail. With all the internal K+ replaced by Rb+ or Cs+ and either isotonic Rb+ or K+ in the bath, tau tail was indistinguishable from that with K+ in the cell. With the exception of NH4+, activation time constants were insensitive to permeant ion species. These results indicate that external permeant ions have stronger effects than internal permeant ions, suggesting an external modulatory site that influences K+ channel gating. However, in bi-ionic experiments with reduced external permeant ion concentrations, tau tail was sensitive to the direction of current flow, indicating that the modulatory site is either within the permeation pathway or in the outer vestibule of the channel. The latter interpretation implies that outward current through an open type l K+ channel significantly alters local ion concentrations at the modulatory site in the outer vestibule, and consequently at the mouth of the channel. Experiments with mixtures of K+ and Rb+ in the external solution reveal that deactivation kinetics are minimally affected by addition of Rb+ until the Rb+ mole fraction approaches unity. This relationship between mole fraction and tau tail, together with the concentration independence of tau tail, was hard to reconcile with simple models in which occupancy of a site within the permeation pathway prevents channel closing, but is consistent with a model in which a permeant ion binding site in the outer vestibule modulates gating depending on the species of ion occupying the site. A description of the ionic selectivity of the type l K+ channel is presented in the companion paper (Shapiro and DeCoursey, 1991b).

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