pH is an important modulator of the low-conductance ATP-sensitive K+ channel of the distal nephron. To examine the mechanism of interaction of protons with the channel-forming protein, we expressed the cloned renal K channel, ROMK (Kir1.x), in Xenopus oocytes and examined the response to varied concentrations of protons both in the presence and in the absence of ATP. Initial experiments were performed on inside-out patches in the absence of ATP in Mg2+-free solution, which prevents channel rundown. A steep sigmoidal relationship was shown between bath pH and ROMK1 or ROMK2 channel function with intracellular acidification reducing channel activity. We calculated values for pK = 7.18 and 7.04 and Hill coefficients = 3.1 and 3.3, for ROMK1 and ROMK2, respectively. Intracellular acidification (pH 7.2) also increased the Mg-ATP binding affinity of ROMK2, resulting in a leftward shift of the relationship between ATP concentration and the reduction in channel activity. The K(1/2) for Mg-ATP decreased from 2.4 mM at pH 7.4 to ~ 0.5 mM at pH 7.2. Mutation of lysine-61 to methionine in ROMK2, which abolishes pH sensitivity, modulated but did not eliminate the effect of pH on ATP inhibition of channel activity. We previously demonstrated that the putative phosphate loop in the carboxy terminus of ROMK2 is involved in ATP binding and channel inhibition [C. M. McNicholas, Y. Yang, G. Giebisch, and S.C. Hebert. Am. J. Physiol. 271 (Renal Fluid Electrolyte Physiol. 40): F275- F285, 1996]. Conceivably, therefore, protonation of the histidine residue within this region could alter net charge (i.e., positive shift) and increase affinity for the negatively charged nucleotide.