Tremorgenic indole alkaloids produce neurological disorders (e.g., staggers syndromes) in ruminants. The mode of action of these fungal mycotoxins is not understood but may be related to their known effects on neurotransmitter release. To determine whether these effects could be due to inhibition of K+ channels, the interaction of various indole diterpenes with high-conductance Ca(2+)-activated K+ (maxi-K) channels was examined. Paspalitrem A, paspalitrem C, aflatrem, penitrem A, and paspalinine inhibit binding of [125I]charybdotoxin (ChTX) to maxi-K channels in bovine aortic smooth muscle sarcolemmal membranes. In contrast, three structurally related compounds, paxilline, verruculogen, and paspalicine, enhanced toxin binding. As predicted from the binding studies, covalent incorporation of [125I]ChTX into the 31-kDa subunit of the maxi-K channel was blocked by compounds that inhibit [125I]ChTX binding and enhanced by compounds that stimulate [125I]ChTX binding. Modulation of [125I]ChTX binding was due to allosteric mechanisms. Despite their different effects on binding of [125I]ChTX to maxi-K channels, all compounds potently inhibited maxi-K channels in electrophysiological experiments. Other types of voltage-dependent or Ca(2+)-activated K+ channels examined were not affected. Chemical modifications of paxilline indicate a defined structure-activity relationship for channel inhibition. Paspalicine, a deshydroxy analog of paspalinine lacking tremorgenic activity, also potently blocked maxi-K channels. Taken together, these data suggest that indole diterpenes are the most potent nonpeptidyl inhibitors of maxi-K channels identified to date. Some of their pharmacological properties could be explained by inhibition of maxi-K channels, although tremorgenicity may be unrelated to channel block.