The voltage- and K(+)-dependent properties of Muller cell currents and channels were characterized in freshly dissociated salamander Muller cells. In whole-cell voltage-clamp experiments, cells with endfeet intact and cells missing endfeet both displayed strong inward rectification. The rectification was similar in shape in both groups of cells but currents were 9.2 times larger in cells with endfeet. Ba2+ at 100 microM reduced the inward current to 6.8% of control amplitude. Decreasing external K+ concentration shifted the cell current-voltage (I-V) relation in a hyperpolarizing direction and reduced current magnitude. In multichannel, cell-attached patch-clamp experiments, patches from both endfoot and soma membrane displayed strong inward rectification. Currents were 38 times larger in endfoot patches. In single-channel, cell-attached patch-clamp experiments, inward- rectifying K+ channels were, in almost all cases, the only channels present in patches of endfoot, proximal process, and soma membrane. Channel conductance was 27.8 pS in 98 mM external K+. Reducing external K+ shifted the channel reversal potential in a hyperpolarizing direction and reduced channel conductance. Channel open probability varied as a function of voltage, being reduced at more negative potentials. Together, these observations demonstrate that the principal ion channel in all Muller cell regions is an inward-rectifying K+ channel. Channel density is far higher on the cell endfoot than in other cell regions. Whole-cell I-V plots of cells bathed in 12, 7, 4, and 2.5 mM K+ were fit by an equation including Boltzmann relation terms representing channel rectification and channel open probability. This equation was incorporated into a model of K+ dynamics in the retina to evaluate the significance of inward-rectifying channels to the spatial buffering/K+ siphoning mechanism of K+ regulation. Compared with ohmic channels, inward-rectifying channels increased the rate of K+ clearance from the retina by 23% for a 1 mM K+ increase and by 137% for a 9.5 mM K+ increase, demonstrating that Muller cell inward- rectifying channels enhance K+ regulation in the retina.