The homotetrameric M2 integral membrane protein of influenza virus forms a proton-selective ion channel. An essential histidine residue (His-37) in the M2 transmembrane domain is believed to play an important role in the conduction mechanism of this channel. Also, this residue is believed to form hydrogen-bonded interactions with the ammonium group of the anti-viral compound, amantadine. A molecular model of this channel suggests that the imidazole side chains of His-37 from symmetry-related monomers of the homotetrameric pore converge to form a coordination site for transition metals. Thus, membrane currents of oocytes of Xenopus laevis expressing the M2 protein were recorded when the solution bathing the oocytes contained various transition metals. Membrane currents were strongly and reversibly inhibited by Cu2+ with biphasic reaction kinetics. The biphasic inhibition curves may be explained by a two-site model involving a fast-binding peripheral site with low specificity for divalent metal ions, as well as a high affinity site (Kdiss approximately 2 microM) that lies deep within the pore and shows rather slow-binding kinetics (kon = 18.6 +/- 0.9 M-1 s-1). The pH dependence of the interaction with the high affinity Cu2+-binding site parallels the pH dependence of inhibition by amantadine, which has previously been ascribed to protonation of His-37. The voltage dependence of the inhibition at the high affinity site indicates that the binding site lies within the transmembrane region of the pore. Furthermore, the inhibition by Cu2+ could be prevented by prior application of the reversible blocker of M2 channel activity, BL-1743, providing further support for the location of the site within the pore region of M2. Finally, substitutions of His-37 by alanine or glycine eliminated the high affinity site and resulted in membrane currents that were only partially inhibited at millimolar concentrations of Cu2+. Binding of Cu2+ to the high affinity site resulted in an approximately equal inhibition of both inward and outward currents. The wild-type protein showed very high specificity for Cu2+ and was only partially inhibited by 1 mM Ni2+, Pt2+, and Zn2+. These data are discussed in terms of the functional role of His-37 in the mechanism of proton translocation through the channel.