1. Regional variations in the shape of early repolarization of the action potential have been correlated to differences in transient outward K+ current, I(t), in myocytes isolated from the epicardial surface, the endocardial trabeculae and the papillary muscles of rabbit left ventricles. Temperature was 35 degrees C during whole-cell, and 22-23 degrees C during cell-attached experiments. 2. Membrane resting potentials were very similar regionally. At 0.1 Hz stimulation the action potential plateau amplitude in papillary muscle cells was significantly higher (104.7 mV) than in epicardial cells (96.47 mV). Exposure to 4-aminopyridine or increases in the rate of stimulation from 0.1 Hz to 3.3 Hz increased plateau height and diminished the initial notch on repolarization. These effects were correlated to the magnitude of I(t) in these cells. At low rates of stimulation I(t) caused a 'spike and dome' morphology of the action potential. 3. Voltage clamp experiments confirmed a higher current density of I(t) in epicardial cells (7.66 pA/pF at +20 mV) than in endocardial (6.45 pA/pF) or papillary muscle cells (3.69 pA/pF). I(t) at 35 degrees C was faster and larger than previously reported and individual currents inactivated almost completely during 100 ms pulses to plateau potentials. No differences in the kinetics or voltage dependence of whole-cell currents were found. Thus, the half-inactivation potential was -37.8 mV in cells from all three regions. 4. Cell-attached recordings from endocardial and epicardial cells showed very similar single-channel amplitudes, burst open probabilities and ensemble averages. The peak channel open probability soon after the start of depolarizing voltage clamp pulses did not change between cell types (P approximately 0.8). The slope conductance of I(t) channels was 13.0 pS with an intercept near the resting potential of the cell. 5. We conclude that regional variations in the shape of initial repolarization in cells from rabbit left ventricle are caused by variations in the magnitude of the transient outward K+ current, I(t). Epicardial cells have the largest, and papillary muscle cells the smallest I(t). The differences are not explained by alterations in the whole-cell kinetics or single-channel kinetics and conductance. The most likely explanation for variations in whole-cell current density is therefore a decrease in channel density in endocardium and papillary muscle compared with epicardial tissue. We estimate the density of I(t) channels per cell to be 1495 (one per 3-4 micron2) in epicardium, 1175 (one per 4-5 micron2) in endocardium, and 875 (one per 6 micron2) in papillary muscle cells.