The eye's aqueous humor is secreted by a bilayered ciliary epithelium comprising pigmented (PE) and nonpigmented (NPE) epithelial cell layers. Stromal Cl(-) enters the PE cells and crosses gap junctions to the NPE cells for release into the aqueous humor. Maxi-Cl(-) channels are expressed in PE cells, but their physiological significance is unclear. To address this question, excised patches and whole native bovine PE cells were patch clamped, and volume was monitored by calcein fluorescence. In symmetrical 130 mM NaCl, cAMP at the cytoplasmic surface of inside-out patches produced concentration-dependent activation of maxi-Cl(-) channels with a unitary conductance of 272 +/- 2 pS (n = 80). Voltage steps from 0 to +/-80 mV, but not to +/-40 mV, produced rapid channel inactivation consistent with the typical characteristics of maxi-Cl(-) channels. cAMP also activated the maxi-Cl(-) channels in outside-out patches. In both cases, maxi-Cl(-) channels were reversibly inhibited by SITS and 5-nitro-2-(phenylpropylamino)benzoate (NPPB). Decreasing cytoplasmic Cl(-) concentration reduced both open-channel probability and unitary conductance. Similarly, the membrane-permeant 8-bromo-cAMP stimulated outward and inward whole cell currents; the stimulation was larger at higher intracellular Cl(-) concentration. As with unitary currents, cAMP-triggered whole cell currents displayed inactivation at +/-80 but not at +/-40 mV. Moreover, cAMP triggered NPPB-sensitive shrinkage of PE cells. The results suggest that cAMP directly activates maxi-Cl(-) channels of native PE cells that contribute to Cl(-) release particularly from Cl(-)-loaded cells. These cAMP-activated channels provide a potential mechanism for reducing and modulating net aqueous humor secretion by facilitating Cl(-) reabsorption into the ciliary stroma.