Whole-cell and single-channel voltage-clamp techniques were used to identify and characterize the ionic currents of insect olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs) in vitro. The cells were isolated from the antennae of male Manduca sexta pupae at stages 3–5 of adult development and maintained in primary cell culture. After 2–3 weeks in vitro, the presumptive ORNs had resting potentials of -62 +/- 12 mV (n = 18) and expressed at least 1 type of Na+ channel and at least 3 types of K+ channels. Na+ currents, recorded in the whole-cell mode, were reversibly blocked by 0.1 microM tetrodotoxin. The predominant type of K+ channel observed was a voltage-activated K+ channel (gamma = 30 pS) with characteristics similar to those of the delayed rectifier. The activity of the 30-pS K+ channel could be inhibited by the application of nucleotides to the cytoplasmic face of inside-out patches of membrane. The nucleotides had relative potencies as follows: ATP greater than cGMP greater than cAMP, with an inhibition constant for ATP of Ki = 0.18 mM. Raising the intracellular Ca2+ concentration from 0.1 to 5 microM induced the opening of a Ca2(+)-activated K+ channel (gamma = 66 pS at 0 mV) that had a low voltage sensitivity. A third, transient type of K+ channel (gamma = 12–18 pS) could be activated by depolarizing voltage steps from very negative resting potentials. Properties of this channel were similar to those of the “A-channel.” These results support the conclusion that M. sexta ORNs differentiate in vitro and provide the basis for studying primary mechanisms of olfactory transduction.