Spinal cord astrocytes (SCA) have a high permeability to K+ and hence have hyperpolarized resting membrane potentials. The underlying K+ channels are believed to participate in the uptake of neuronally released K+. These K+ channels have been studied extensively with regard to their biophysics and pharmacology, but their molecular identity in spinal cord is currently unknown. Using a combination of approaches, we demonstrate that channels composed of the Kir4.1 subunit are responsible for mediating the resting K+ conductance in SCA. Biophysical analysis demonstrates astrocytic Kir currents as weakly rectifying, potentiated by increasing [K+]o, and inhibited by micromolar concentrations of Ba2+. These currents were insensitive to tolbutemide, a selective blocker of Kir6.x channels, and to tertiapin, a blocker for Kir1.1 and Kir3.1/3.4 channels. PCR and Western blot analysis show prominent expression of Kir4.1 in SCA, and immunocytochemistry shows localization Kir4.1 channels to the plasma membrane. Kir4.1 protein levels show a developmental upregulation in vivo that parallels an increase in currents recorded over the same time period. Kir4.1 is highly expressed throughout most areas of the gray matter in spinal cord in vivo and recordings from spinal cord slices show prominent Kir currents. Electrophysiological recordings comparing SCA of wild-type mice with those of homozygote Kir4.1 knockout mice confirm a complete and selective absence of Kir channels in the knockout mice, suggesting that Kir4.1 is the principle channel mediating the resting K+ conductance in SCA in vitro and in situ. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.