These experiments identify an inward rectifier K+ (Kir) channel expressed in mouse cortical and white matter astrocytes at the molecular level. Messenger RNA for one of the known Kir channel genes, Kir4.1, is present at much higher levels in cortical astrocytes in primary culture than the other known Kir family members. In culture, the level of Kir4.1 mRNA is lower in proliferating cells and in cells cultured for 16 h under hypoxic conditions, compared to confluent cells. Partial differentiation of the astrocytes with dibutyryl cAMP or by coculture with neurons has no effect on the Kir4.1 mRNA level. In situ hybridization experiments show that Kir4.1 mRNA is broadly distributed in the adult brain, including the neocortex, the stratum pyrimadale of the hippocampus, and the piriform cortex. Immunostaining confirms that the Kir4.1 protein is expressed by cultured astrocytes and also by cocultured cortical neurons. Astrocytes and neurons display a patchy pattern of immunostaining, raising the possibility that the channels sort themselves in clusters in the plasma membrane. Stellate cells in the neocortex and white matter are immunoreactive for Kir4.1, and double immunofluorescence experiments show colocalization of Kir4.1 and glial acidic fibrillary protein (GFAP) on stellate cells in the white matter. The cloned mouse Kir4.1 cDNA, when expressed heterologously in HEK cells, gives rise to inactivating Kir channels similar to those recorded from cultured astrocytes. These results indicate that the Kir4.1 gene product forms a Kir channel, or is a subunit of the channel, in mouse cortical astrocytes both in culture and in vivo.