1. Taste receptor cells produce action potentials as a result of transduction mechanisms that occur when these cells are stimulated with tastants. These action potentials are thought to be key signaling events in relaying information to the central nervous system. We explored the ionic basis of action potentials from dissociated posterior rat taste cells using the patch-clamp recording technique in both voltage-clamp and current-clamp modes. 2. Action potentials were evoked by intracellular injection of depolarizing current pulses from a holding potential of -80 mV. The threshold potential for firing of action potentials was approximately -35 mV; the input resistance of these cells averaged 6.9 G omega. With long depolarizing pulses, two or three action potentials could be elicited with successive attenuation of the spike height. Afterhyperpolarizations were observed often. 3. Both sodium and calcium currents contribute to depolarizing phases of the action potential. Action potentials were blocked completely in the presence of the sodium channel blocker tetrodotoxin. Calcium contributions could be visualized as prolonged calcium plateaus when repolarizing potassium currents were blocked and barium was used as a charge carrier. 4. Outward currents were composed of sustained delayed rectifier current, transient potassium current, and calcium-activated potassium current. Transient and sustained potassium currents activated close to -30 mV and increased monotonically with further depolarization. Up to half the outward current inactivated with decay constants on the order of seconds. Sustained and transient currents displayed steep voltage dependence in conductance and inactivation curves. Half inactivation occurred at -20 +/- 3.1 mV (mean +/- SE) with a decrease of 11.2 +/- 0.5 mV per e-fold. Half maximal conductance occurred at 3.6 +/- 1.8 mV and increased 12.2 +/- 0.6 mV per e-fold. Calcium-activated potassium current was evidenced by application of apamin and the use of calcium-free bathing solution. It was most obvious at more depolarized holding potentials that inactivated much of the transient and sustained outward currents. 5. Potassium currents contribute to both the repolarization and afterhyperpolarization phases of the action potential. These currents were blocked by bath application of tetraethylammonium, which also substantially broadened the action potential. Application of 4-aminopyridine was able to selectively block transient potassium currents without affecting sustained currents. This also broadened the action potential as well as eliminated the afterhyperpolarization. 6. A second type of action potential was observed that differed in duration. These slow action potentials had t1/2 durations of 9.6 ms compared with 1.4 ms for fast action potentials. Input resistances of the two groups were indistinguishable. Approximately one-fourth of the cells eliciting action potentials were of the slow type. 7. Cells eliciting fast action potentials had large outward currents capable of producing a quick repolarization, whereas cells with slow action potentials had small outward currents by comparison. The average values of fast cells were 2,563 pA and 1.4 ms compared with 373 pA and 9.6 ms for slow cells. Current and duration values were related exponentially. No significant difference was noted for inward currents. 8. These results suggest that many taste receptor cells conduct action potentials, which may be classified broadly into two groups on the basis of action potential duration and potassium current magnitude. These groups may be related to cell turnover. The physiological role of action potentials remains to be elucidated but may be important for communication within the taste bud as well as to the afferent nerve.