1. The inside-out configuration of the patch-clamp method was used to study the effects of MgATP, free ATP and Mg2+ on single ATP-sensitive K+ channel currents in rat pancreatic beta-cells. 2. Magnesium ions caused a marked reduction of channel activity: 5 mM-free Mg2+ produced a 50% reduction in the activity of inward currents recorded at -60 mV in symmetrical K+ concentrations. 3. Inhibition of channel activity by MgATP does not involve phosphorylation as both free ATP (i.e. ATP in the absence of divalent cations) and non-hydrolysable ATP analogues were effective inhibitors. 4. Magnesium ions produced a striking reduction in the ability of ATP (total) to inhibit channel activity. When channel activity was plotted as a function of the total ATP concentration, the Ki for channel inhibition was 4 microM in Mg2(+)-free solution, compared to a Ki of 26 microM in the presence of 2 mM-Mg2+. The shape of the relationship between channel activity and the total ATP concentration was not changed by Mg2+. When channel activity was plotted as a function of the free ATP concentration, however, Mg2+ had little effect on Ki. This suggests that free ATP is the more potent inhibitor of channel activity and that MgATP has little inhibitory effect. 5. ATP analogues that dissociate only as far as the tribasic form were also able to inhibit channel activity. This suggests that both ATP4- and ATPH3- can block the channel. 6. Like ATP, ADP was more effective at inhibiting channel activity in the absence of Mg2+, that is as the free base. The non-hydrolysable ATP analogues AMP-PNP and AMP-PCP, however, were more effective in the presence of Mg2+. 7. It is suggested that (1) the potency of inhibition is related to the amount of negative charge carried by the ion and (2) the intracellular concentration of free ATP will be an important modulator of channel activity in the intact beta-cell.