Enzymatically isolated myocytes from ferret right ventricles (12-16 wk, male) were studied using the whole cell patch clamp technique. The macroscopic properties of a transient outward K+ current I(to) were quantified. I(to) is selective for K+, with a PNa/PK of 0.082. Activation of I(to) is a voltage-dependent process, with both activation and inactivation being independent of Na+ or Ca2+ influx. Steady-state inactivation is well described by a single Boltzmann relationship (V1/2 = -13.5 mV; k = 5.6 mV). Substantial inactivation can occur during a subthreshold depolarization without any measurable macroscopic current. Both development of and recovery from inactivation are well described by single exponential processes. Ensemble averages of single I(to) channel currents recorded in cell-attached patches reproduce macroscopic I(to) and indicate that inactivation is complete at depolarized potentials. The overall inactivation/recovery time constant curve has a bell-shaped potential dependence that peaks between -10 and -20 mV, with time constants (22 degrees C) ranging from 23 ms (-90 mV) to 304 ms (-10 mV). Steady-state activation displays a sigmoidal dependence on membrane potential, with a net aggregate half- activation potential of +22.5 mV. Activation kinetics (0 to +70 mV, 22 degrees C) are rapid, with I(to) peaking in approximately 5-15 ms at +50 mV. Experiments conducted at reduced temperatures (12 degrees C) demonstrate that activation occurs with a time delay. A nonlinear least- squares analysis indicates that three closed kinetic states are necessary and sufficient to model activation. Derived time constants of activation (22 degrees C) ranged from 10 ms (+10 mV) to 2 ms (+70 mV). Within the framework of Hodgkin-Huxley formalism, Ito gating can be described using an a3i formulation.