Voltage-dependent ion channels are a difficult class of proteins to approach biochemically. Many such channels are present at low density in relevant tissues and exist as multiple subtypes that can be distinguished electrophysiologically. In particular, K channels appear to be a diverse family of proteins characterized by many different conductance properties, gating behaviors and regulatory phenomena. Fortunately, specific peptide toxins for K channels are present in the venoms of insects, scorpions, snakes and possibly other species. The available sequences of these peptides define several different families of toxins. Electrophysiological and radioligand binding studies suggest that these toxins can be used to distinguish subclasses of K channels that share similar toxin binding sites. The growing databank of sequence homologies for both toxins and channels is, in essence, a codebook for identifying common elements of structure and function. The continuing development of toxins as biochemical probes should help to uncover the molecular basis and physiological significance of K-channel diversity.