The ionic conductance mechanisms underlying action potential behavior in GH3 and GH4/C1 rat pituitary tumor cell lines were identified and characterized using a patch electrode voltage-clamp technique. Voltage-dependent sodium, calcium, and potassium currents and calcium-activated potassium currents were present in the GH3 cells. GH4/C1 cells possess much less sodium current, less voltage-dependent potassium current, and comparable amounts of calcium current. Voltage-dependent inward sodium current activated and inactivated rapidly and was blocked by tetrodotoxin. A sloweractivating voltage-dependent inward calcium current was blocked by cobalt, manganese, nickel, zinc, or cadium. Barium was substituted for calcium as the inward current carrier. Calcium tail currents decay with two exponential components. The rate constant for the slower component is voltage dependent, while the faster rate constant is independent of voltage. An analysis of tail current envelopes under conditions of controlled ionic gradients suggests that much of the apparent decline of calcium currents arises from an opposing outward current of low cationic selectivity. Voltage-dependent outward potassium current activated rapidly and inactivated slowly. A second outward current, the calcium-activated potassium current, activated slowly and did not appear to reach steady state with 185-ms voltage pulses. This slowly activating outward current is sensitive to external cobalt and cadmium and to the internal concentration ofcalcium. Tetraethylammonium and 4-aminopyridine block the majority of these outward currents. Our studies reveal a variety of macroscopic ionic currents that could play a role in the initiation and short-term maintenance of hormone secretion, but suggest that sodium channels probably do not make a major contribution.