The cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) is a Cl- channel that is regulated by cAMP-dependent phosphorylation and by intracellular ATP. Intracellular ATP also regulates a class of K+ channels that have a distinct pharmacology: they are inhibited by sulfonylureas and activated by a novel class of drugs called K+ channel openers. In search of modulators of CFTR Cl- channels, we examined the effect of sulfonylureas and K+ channel openers on CFTR Cl- currents in cells expressing recombinant CFTR. The sulfonylureas, tolbutamide and glibenclamide, inhibited whole-cell CFTR Cl- currents at half-maximal concentrations of approximately 150 and 20 microM, respectively. Inhibition by both agents showed little voltage dependence and developed slowly; > 90% inhibition occurred 3 min after adding 1 mM tolbutamide or 100 microM glibenclamide. The effect of tolbutamide was reversible, while that of glibenclamide was not. In contrast to their activating effect on K+ channels, the K+ channel openers, diazoxide, BRL 38227, and minoxidil sulfate inhibited CFTR Cl- currents. Half-maximal inhibition was observed at approximately 250 microM diazoxide, 50 microM BRL 38227, and 40 microM minoxidil sulfate. The rank order of potency for inhibition of CFTR Cl- currents was: glibenclamide < BRL 38227 approximately equal to minoxidil sulfate > tolbutamide > diazoxide. Site-directed mutations of CFTR in the first membrane-spanning domain and second nucleotide-binding domain did not affect glibenclamide inhibition of CFTR Cl- currents. However, when part of the R domain was deleted, glibenclamide inhibition showed significant voltage dependence. These agents, especially glibenclamide, which was the most potent, may be of value in identifying CFTR Cl- channels. They or related analogues might also prove to be of value in treating diseases such as diarrhea, which may involve increased activity of the CFTR Cl- channel.