The cortical collecting duct (CCD) is a final site for regulation of K(+) homeostasis. CCD K(+) secretion is determined by the electrochemical gradient and apical permeability to K(+). Conducting secretory K(+) (SK/ROMK) and maxi-K channels are present in the apical membrane of the CCD, the former in principal cells and the latter in both principal and intercalated cells. Whereas SK channels mediate baseline K(+) secretion, maxi-K channels appear to participate in flow-stimulated K(+) secretion. Chronic dietary K(+) loading enhances the CCD K(+) secretory capacity due, in part, to an increase in SK channel density (Palmer et al., J Gen Physiol 104: 693-710, 1994). Long-term exposure of Ambystoma tigrinum to elevated K(+) increases renal K(+) excretion due to an increase in apical maxi-K channel density in their CDs (Stoner and Viggiano, J Membr Biol 162: 107-116, 1998). The purpose of the present study was to test whether K(+) adaptation in the mammalian CCD is associated with upregulation of maxi-K channel expression. New Zealand White rabbits were fed a low (LK), control (CK), or high (HK) K(+) diet for 10-14 days. Real-time PCR quantitation of message encoding maxi-K alpha- and beta(2-4)-subunits in single CCDs from HK animals was greater than that detected in CK and LK animals (P < 0.05); beta(1)-subunit was not detected in any CCD sample but was present in whole kidney. Indirect immunofluorescence microscopy revealed a predominantly intracellular distribution of alpha-subunits in LK kidneys. In contrast, robust apical labeling was detected primarily in alpha-intercalated cells in HK kidneys. In summary, K(+) adaptation is associated with an increase in steady-state abundance of maxi-K channel subunit-specific mRNAs and immunodetectable apical alpha-subunit, the latter observation consistent with redistribution from an intracellular pool to the plasma membrane.