Central respiratory chemoreceptors adjust respiratory drive in a homeostatic response to alterations in brain pH and/or P(CO(2)). Multiple brainstem sites are proposed as neural substrates for central chemoreception, but molecular substrates that underlie chemosensitivity in respiratory neurons have not been identified. In rat brainstem neurons expressing transcripts for TASK-1, a two-pore domain K(+) channel, we characterized K(+) currents with kinetic and voltage-dependent properties identical to cloned rat TASK-1 currents. Native currents were sensitive to acid and alkaline shifts in the same physiological pH range as TASK-1 (pK approximately 7.4), and native and cloned pH-sensitive currents were modulated similarly by neurotransmitters and inhalational anesthetics. This pH-sensitive TASK-1 channel is an attractive candidate to mediate chemoreception because it is functionally expressed in respiratory-related neurons, including airway motoneurons and putative chemoreceptor neurons of locus coeruleus (LC). Inhibition of TASK-1 channels by extracellular acidosis can depolarize and increase excitability in those cells, thereby contributing to chemoreceptor function in LC neurons and directly enhancing respiratory motoneuronal output.