Increases in extracellular potassium (K+) concentration (up to 20 mM) cause dilation in some blood vessels. This may be particularly important in myocardial ischemia because in this condition K+ is released from ischemic cells. In this study, we investigated mechanisms of effect of increased K+ concentration on the tone of isolated bovine coronary artery. Bovine coronary arteries were isolated and mounted in organ baths for isometric tension recording. After an equilibration period, arteries were contracted with serotonin (1 mu M). When serotonin contraction reached a steady-state, K+ concentration of organ baths was increased from physiological levels to 10 mM, 14 mM, 18 mM or 22 mM in four groups of the arteries. After a washout period, this procedure was repeated in presence of ouabain, a blocker of Na+/K+ ATPase or a K+ channel blocker (tetraethylammonium, 4-aminopyridine, glibenclamide or barium). Increasing K+ concentration of the organ baths to 10 mM, 14 mM and 18 mM caused dilation in the arteries. Ouabain abolished the dilation and barium (a blocker of inward rectifier K+ channels) inhibited the dilation significantly.