A cation selective channel was identified in the apical membrane of fetal rat (Wistar) alveolar type II epithelium using the patch clamp technique. The single channel conductance was 23 +/- 1.2 pS (n = 16) with symmetrical NaCl (140 mM) solution in the bath and pipette. The channel was highly permeable to Na+ and K+ (PNa/PK = 0.9) but essentially impermeant to chloride and gluconate. Membrane potential did not influence open state probability when measured in a high Ca2+ (1.5 mM) bath. The channel reversibly inactivated when the bath was exchanged with a Ca(2+)-free (less than 10(-9) M) solution. The Na+ channel blocker amiloride (10(-6) M) applied to the extracellular side of the membrane reduced P(open) relative to control patches; P(control) = 0.57 +/- 0.11 (n = 5), P(amiloride) = 0.09 +/- 0.07 (n = 4, p less than 0.01), however, amiloride did not significantly influence channel conductance (g); g(control) 19 +/- 0.9 pS (n = 5), 18 +/- 3.0 pS (n = 4). More than one current level was observed in 42% (16/38) of active patches; multiple current levels (ranging from 2 to 6) were of equal amplitude suggesting the presence of multiple channels or subconductance states. Channel activity was also evident in cell attached patches. Since monolayers of these cells absorb Na+ via an amiloride sensitive transport mechanism we speculate that this amiloride sensitive cation selective channel is a potential apical pathway for electrogenic Na+ transport in the alveolar region of the lung.