The endothelial lining of blood vessels is subjected to a wide range of haemodynamically-generated shear-stress forces throughout the vascular system. In vivo and in vitro, endothelial cells change their morphology and biochemistry in response to shear stress in a force- and time-dependent way, or when a critical threshold is exceeded. The initial stimulus-response coupling mechanisms have not been identified, however. Recently, Lansman et al. described stretch-activated ion channels in endothelial cells and suggested that they could be involved in the response to mechanical forces generated by blood flow. The channels were relatively nonselective and were opened by membrane stretching induced by suction. Here we report whole-cell patch-clamp recordings of single arterial endothelial cells exposed to controlled levels of laminar shear stress in capillary flow tubes. A K+ selective, shear-stress-activated ionic current (designated Ik.s) was identified which is unlike previously described stretch-activated currents. Ik.s varies in magnitude and duration as a function of shear stress (half-maximal effect at 0.70 dyn cm-2), desensitizes slowly and recovers rapidly and fully on cessation of flow. Ik.s activity represents the earliest and fastest stimulus-response coupling of haemodynamic forces to endothelial cells yet found. We suggest that localized flow-activated hyperpolarization of endothelium involving Ik.s may participate in the regulation of vascular tone.