Sour taste is mediated by acids with the degree of sourness a function of proton concentration. Recently, several members of the acid-sensing ion channel subfamily (ASICs) were cloned from taste cells and proposed to mediate sour taste. However, it is not known whether sour responses in taste cells resemble the responses mediated by ASICs. Using the whole cell patch-clamp technique and Na(+) imaging, we have characterized responses to acid stimuli in isolated rat vallate taste cells. Citric acid (pH 5) induced a large, rapidly activating inward current in most taste cells tested. The response showed various degrees of desensitization with prolonged stimulation. Current amplitudes were pH dependent, and adapting with acidic bath solutions reduced subsequent responses to acid stimulation. Amiloride (100-500 microM) partially and reversibly suppressed the acid-induced current. The current-voltage relationship showed reversal potential near the Na(+) equilibrium potential, suggesting that the current is carried predominantly by Na(+). These data were consistent with Na(+) imaging experiments showing that acid stimulation resulted in increases in intracellular Na(+). Taken together, these data indicate that acid-induced currents in vallate taste cells share general properties with ASICs expressed in heterologous cells and sensory neurons that express ASIC subunits. The large amplitude of the current and its existence in a high percentage of taste cells imply that ASICs or ASIC-like channels may play a prominent role in sour-taste transduction.