1. In order to examine whether K+ channels play a role in antigen-induced airway responses, the effect of K+ channel blockers on antigen-induced airway smooth muscle contraction and mediator release was examined in vitro in guinea-pigs actively sensitized with ovalbumin (OA). 2. Tracheal strips from sensitized animals were suspended in organ baths under a resting tension of 1 g and isometric tension was continuously measured. Cumulative concentration-response curves to OA (0.1-1000 ng ml-1) or histamine (10 nM-1 mM) were obtained in the presence and absence of K+ channel blockers. 3. OA (10, 100 or 1000 ng ml-1) was incubated with minced lung tissues from the same animals for 15 min in the presence and absence of K+ channel blockers, and released histamine and leukotriene C4 (LTC4) in the incubating medium were measured. 4. Apamin, a small conductance Ca(2+)-activated K+ channel (PK,Ca) blocker, (0.1, 0.3 and 1 microM) significantly inhibited OA-induced smooth muscle contraction, while charybdotoxin (ChTX, 10 nM), an intermediate and large conductance PK,Ca blocker, and iberiotoxin (IbTX, 3 nM), a large conductance PK,Ca blocker, were without effect. Apamin (0.3 microM) had no effect on exogenously administered histamine-induced airway smooth muscle contraction, suggesting that the inhibition of OA-induced contraction by apamin did not occur at the smooth muscle level. 5. The inhibition of OA-induced contraction by apamin (0.3 microM) was not significantly affected by pretreatment with a leukotriene antagonist, ONO-1078 (10 microM), but was abolished by pretreatment with a histamine H1-receptor blocker, pyrilamine (1 microM). 6. Apamin by itself (up to 0.1 MicroM) had no effect on spontaneous histamine release from minced lung tissues. Histamine release induced by low and intermediate concentrations of OA (10 and 100 ng ml-1)was significantly suppressed by apamin pretreatment (P<0.05 and P<0.001), whereas LTC4 release was not affected. ChTX (0.1 MicroM) and IbTX (10 nM) had no significant effect on either spontaneous or OA (100 ng ml-1)-induced histamine release.7. These results suggest that apamin partially but substantially inhibits antigen-induced smooth muscle contraction, presumably by inhibiting antigen-induced histamine release from airway mast cells through small conductance PKca closure.