1. We studied the electrophysiological properties of freshly isolated rat osteoclasts using the whole-cell configuration of the patch-clamp technique. Membrane currents were recorded from cells plated on three substates: dentine, type I collagen and glass. 2. Based on their morphology, we defined two categories of osteoclasts. 'Rounded' osteoclasts were dome-shaped and lacked lamellipodia. 'Spread' osteoclasts were flattened and had lamellipodia. The proportion of 'rounded' osteoclasts was significantly greater when cells were plated on dentine or type I collagen than when cells were plated on glass. 3. 'Spread' osteoclasts expressed an inwardly rectifying K+ conductance regardless of the substrate on which they were plated. 4. 'Rounded' osteoclasts, on all substrates, expressed a transient, outwardly rectifying conductance that was selective for K+ based on: reversal of deactivation tail currents at -74 mV; a 60 mV shift in tail current reversal potential for 10-fold change in [K+]o; and blockade of outward current by extracellular 4-aminopyridine, charybdotoxin, and intracellular Cs+. The outward K+ current had an activation threshold of approximately -50 mV, with half-activation at -29 mV. The current also exhibited voltage-dependent inactivation, with half-inactivation at approximately -40 mV. 5. Outward K+ current in 'rounded' osteoclasts was reduced when extracellular Ca2+ was removed and upon addition of Ni2+, but was unaffected by Cd2+ or nifedipine. 6. 'Rounded' osteoclasts had large whole-cell capacitance for their apparent surface area. Capacitance was positively correlated with K+ conductance. The additional surface membrane we detected through capacitance measurements may be the 'ruffled border' of actively resorbing osteoclasts. 7. We conclude that substrate influences the expression of osteoclast phenotype, as defined by morphology and K+ conductances. 'Rounded' osteoclasts express an outwardly rectifying K+ conductance, with no apparent inwardly rectifying K+ conductance. In contrast, 'spread' osteoclasts exhibit an inwardly rectifying K+ conductance with no outwardly rectifying K+ conductance. The 'spread' phenotype may represent a motile phase, while the 'rounded' phenotype may represent a resorptive phase of osteoclastic activity.