Descending vasa recta (DVR) are capillary-sized microvessels that supply blood flow to the renal medulla. They are composed of contractile pericytes and endothelial cells. In this study, we used the whole cell patch-clamp method to determine whether inward rectifier potassium channels (K(IR)) exist in the endothelia, affect membrane potential, and modulate intracellular Ca(2+) concentration ([Ca(2+)](cyt)). The endothelium was accessed for electrophysiology by removing abluminal pericytes from collagenase-digested vessels. K(IR) currents were recorded using symmetrical 140 mM K(+) solutions that served to maximize currents and eliminate cell-to-cell coupling by closing gap junctions. Large, inwardly rectifying currents were observed at membrane potentials below the equilibrium potential for K(+). Ba(2+) potently inhibited those currents in a voltage-dependent manner, with affinity k = 0.18, 0.33, 0.60, and 1.20 microM at -160, -120, -80, and -40 mV, respectively. Cs(+) also blocked those currents with k = 20, 48, 253, and 1,856 microM at -160, -120, -80, and -40 mV, respectively. In the presence of 1 mM ouabain, increasing extracellular K(+) concentration from 5 to 10 mM hyperpolarized endothelial membrane potential by 15 mV and raised endothelial [Ca(2+)](cyt). Both the K(+)-induced membrane hyperpolarization and the [Ca(2+)](cyt) elevation were reversed by Ba(2+). Immunochemical staining verified that both pericytes and endothelial cells of DVR express K(IR)2.1, K(IR)2.2, and K(IR)2.3 subunits. We conclude that strong, inwardly rectifying K(IR)2.x isoforms are expressed in DVR and mediate K(+)-induced hyperpolarization of the endothelium.