Cardiac I(K1) and I(KACh) are the major potassium currents displaying classical strong inward rectification, a unique property that is critical for their roles in cardiac excitability. In the last 15 years, research on I(K1) and I(KACh) has been propelled by the cloning of the underlying inwardly rectifying potassium (Kir) channels, the discovery of the molecular mechanism of strong rectification and the linking of a number of disorders of cardiac excitability to defects in genes encoding Kir channels. Disease-causing mutations in Kir genes have been shown experimentally to affect one or more of the following channel properties: structure, assembly, trafficking, and regulation, with the ultimate effect of a gain- or a loss-of-function of the channel. It is now established that I(K1) and I(KACh) channels are heterotetramers of Kir2 and Kir3 subunits, respectively. Each homomeric Kir channel has distinct biophysical and regulatory properties, and individual Kir subunits often display different patterns of regional, cellular, and membrane distribution. These differences are thought to underlie important variations in the physiological properties of I(K1) and I(KACh). It has become increasingly clear that the contribution of I(K1) and I(KACh) channels to cardiac electrical activity goes beyond their long recognized role in the stabilization of resting membrane potential and shaping the late phase of action potential repolarization in individual myocytes but extends to being critical elements determining the overall electrical stability of the heart.
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