Cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) is an epithelial Cl- channel that is regulated by protein kinase A and cytosolic nucleotides. Previously, Sheppard and Welsh reported that the sulfonylureas glibenclamide and tolbutamide reduced CFTR whole cell currents. The aim of this study was to quantify the effects of tolbutamide on CFTR gating in excised membrane patches containing multiple channels. We chose tolbutamide because weak (i.e., fast-type) open channel blockers introduce brief events into multichannel recordings that can be readily quantified by current fluctuation analysis. Inspection of current records revealed that the addition of tolbutamide reduced the apparent single-channel current amplitude and increased the open-channel noise, as expected for a fast-type open channel blocker. The apparent decrease in unitary current amplitude provides a measure of open probability within a burst (P0 Burst), and the resulting concentration-response relationship was described by a simple Michaelis-Menten inhibition function. The concentration of tolbutamide causing a 50% reduction of Po Burst (540 +/- 20 microM) was similar to the concentration producing a 50% inhibition of short-circuit current across T84 colonic epithelial cell monolayers (400 +/- 20 microM). Changes in CFTR gating were then quantified by analyzing current fluctuations. Tolbutamide caused a high-frequency Lorentzian (corner frequency, fc > 300 Hz) to appear in the power density spectrum. The fc of this Lorentzian component increased as a linear function of tolbutamide concentration, as expected for a pseudo-first-order open-blocked mechanism and yielded estimates of the on rate (koff = 2.8 +/- 0.3 microM-1 s-1), the off rate (kon = 1210 +/- 225 s-1), and the dissociation constant (KD = 430 +/- 80 microM). Based on these observations, we propose that there is a bimolecular interaction between tolbutamide and CFTR, causing open channel blockade.