A variety of stimuli, including cytokines and adhesion to surfaces and matrix proteins, can regulate macrophage function, in part through changes in Ca(2+)- dependent second messengers. While fluctuation in intracellular Ca2+ is an important modulator of cellular activation, little attention has been paid to the roles of other ions whose cytoplasmic concentrations can be rapidly regulated by ion channels. To examine the role of ion channels in macrophage function, we undertook patch clamp studies of human culture-derived macrophages grown under serum-free conditions. The major ionic current in these cells was carried by an outwardly rectifying K+ channel, which had a single-channel conductance of 229 pS in symmetrical K(+)-rich solution and macroscopic whole-cell conductance of 9.8 nS. These channels opened infrequently in resting cells but were activated immediately by (i) adhesion of mobile cells onto a substrate, (ii) stretch applied to isolated membrane patches in Ca(2+)-free buffers, (iii) intracellular Ca2+ (EC50 of 0.4 microM), and (iv) the cytokine IL-2. Furthermore, barium and 4-aminopyridine, blockers of this channel, altered the organization and structure of the cytoskeletal proteins actin, tubulin and vimentin. These cytoskeletal changes were associated with reversible alteration to the morphology of the cells. Thus, we have identified an outwardly rectifying K+ channel that appeared to be involved in cytokine and adherence-mediated macrophage activation, and in the maintenance of cytoskeletal integrity and cell shape.