The apically restricted, voltage-dependent K+ conductance of Necturus taste receptor cells was studied using cell-attached, inside-out and outside-out configurations of the patch-clamp recording technique. Patches from the apical membrane typically contained many channels with unitary conductances ranging from 30 to 175 pS in symmetrical K+ solutions. Channel density was so high that unitary currents could be resolved only at negative voltages; at positive voltages patch recordings resembled whole-cell recordings. These multi-channel patches had a small but significant resting conductance that was strongly activated by depolarization. Patch current was highly K+ selective, with a PK/PNa ratio of 28. Patches containing single K+ channels were obtained by allowing the apical membrane to redistribute into the basolateral membrane with time. Two types of K+ channels were observed in isolation. Ca(2+)-dependent channels of large conductance (135-175 pS) were activated in cell-attached patches by strong depolarization, with a half-activation voltage of approximately -10 mV. An ATP-blocked K+ channel of 100 pS was activated in cell-attached patches by weak depolarization, with a half-activation voltage of approximately -47 mV. All apical K+ channels were blocked by the sour taste stimulus citric acid directly applied to outside-out and perfused cell-attached patches. The bitter stimulus quinine also blocked all channels when applied directly by altering channel gating to reduce the open probability. When quinine was applied extracellularly only to the membrane outside the patch pipette and also to inside-out patches, it produced a flickery block. Thus, sour and bitter taste stimuli appear to block the same apical K+ channels via different mechanisms to produce depolarizing receptor potentials.