The effect of ethanol on maxi Ca2+-activated K+ channels (BK channels) in GH3 pituitary tumor cells was investigated using single-channel recordings and focusing on intracellular signal transduction. In outside-out patches, ethanol caused a transient concentration-dependent increase of BK-channel activity. 30 mm (1.4 per thousand) ethanol significantly increased mean channel open time and channel open probability by 26.3 +/- 9% and 78.8 +/- 10%, respectively; single-channel current amplitude was not affected by ethanol. The augmenting effect of ethanol was blocked in the presence of protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitors staurosporine, bisindolylmaleimide, and PKC (19-31) pseudosubstrate inhibitor as well as by AMP-PNP (5'-adenylylimidodiphosphate), a nonhydrolyzable ATP-analogue, but not by the phospholipase C blocker U-73122. Phosphatase inhibitors microcystin-LR and okadaic acid promoted the ethanol effect. The blocking effect was released at higher concentrations of ethanol (100 mm) suggesting a second site of action or a competition between blockers and ethanol. Our results suggest that the effect of ethanol on BK-channels is mediated by PKC stimulation and phosphorylation of the channels which increases channel activity and hence may influence action potentials duration and hormone secretion.