The effect of protein kinase C (PKC) on the Ca2+-activated K+ current (IK,Ca) in guinea-pig gastric myocytes was studied using the whole-cell voltage-clamp technique. At a holding potential of 0 mV, IK,Ca, recorded as spontaneous, transient, outwards currents (STOCs), was markedly inhibited, both in mean amplitude (54 +/- 5%) and frequency (60 +/- 8%) by 1 microM phorbol 12, 13 dibutyrate (PDBu, n = 6). These effects were antagonized by pretreatment with 10 nM bisindolylmaleimide I (n = 5), a selective inhibitor of PKC. The possibility that the inhibition of STOCs was due to direct channel inhibition by PKC was addressed using inside-out or open-cell-attached patch-clamp techniques, the latter established using beta-escin. PDBu did not alter the conductance or open probability of the KCa channel in any mode, suggesting that PKC does not inhibit the KCa channel directly. To study the involvement of the Na/Ca exchanger in the inhibition of STOCs by PDBu, its operation was prevented by replacing Na+ in the internal solution by tris(hydroxymethyl)aminomethane (TRIS) and external Na+ by equimolar K+ and Ca2+-activated inwards K+ currents recorded at a holding potential of 0 mV. Neither the mean amplitude (96 +/- 8%) nor the frequency of these currents was inhibited significantly by 1 microM PDBu (n = 5). Like PDBu, 5 microM 2-(2-[4-(4-nitrobenzyloxy)phenyl]ethyl) isothiourea methanesulphonate (KB-R7943), a selective inhibitor of the reverse mode Na/Ca exchanger, also inhibited the mean amplitude (45 +/- 6%) and frequency (26 +/- 2%) of STOCs at the holding potential of 0 mV (n=6). The results suggest that the suppression of STOCs by PKC is mediated by inhibition of the Na/Ca exchanger.