Transepithelial solute transport and bicarbonate secretion are major functions of pancreatic duct cells, and both functions are thought to involve the presence of chloride channels in the apical membrane of the cell. After being isolated from a human pancreatic adenocarcinoma, the Capan-1 cell line conserves most of the properties of ductal cells and thus constitutes a useful system for investigating the role of chloride channels. Using patch-clamp techniques, we identified three different chloride-selective channels in the apical membrane of confluent Capan-1 cells. Two were non-rectifying chloride channels with low (50 pS) and high (350 pS) unitary conductances. Both channels were active in cell-attached recordings, and they were consistently located together in the same patch. Maxi Cl- channels displayed multiple subconductance states, and were reversibly inactivated by either positive or negative voltage changes, which indicates that they were optimally opened at the cell resting potential. The third was an outwardly rectifying chloride channel with a unitary conductance of 38 pS and 70 pS at negative and positive potentials respectively. Rectifying Cl- channels were clustered in discrete loci. They were silent in situ, but became active after patch excision. In inside-out excised patches, the three channels displayed a high selectivity for Cl- over monovalent cations (Na+ and K+) and gluconate. They were blocked by 20-200 microM 4,4'-diisothiocyanatostilbene-2,2'-disulfonic acid (DIDS) and were insensitive to changes in the Ca2+ concentration. Our results show that the apical membrane of Capan-1 cells contains a high density of chloride channels; these channels may provide pathways for transepithelial solute transport as well as for bicarbonate secretion.