Activation of the rapid, delayed rectifier K current (IKr) is important for normal repolarization of cardiac action potentials, especially in mammalian ventricular muscle. The study of this current has been greatly aided by the discovery that the human ether-a-go-go-related gene (HERG) encodes the pore-forming alpha subunits of these channels. As for other voltage-activated K+ channels, divalent and trivalent cations affect the gating of HERG channels by screening negative membrane surface charges or by direct interaction with the channel gating mechanism. Previous studies have reported that IKr of myocytes, and HERG channels heterologously expressed in Xenopus oocytes, are reduced by external Co2+ and La3+. We have reinvestigated the "blocking" effect of Co2+ and La3+ on HERG channels expressed in Xenopus oocytes. At concentrations previously reported to block IKr or HERG current (IHERG), Co2+ (10 mM) and La3+ (10 microM) had only small effects on the magnitude of fully activated IHERG. The apparent block results from altered kinetics and voltage dependence of gating, similar to the effects of Ca2+ on HERG channels. Under control conditions, the half-points for voltage-dependent activation and inactivation of HERG were -35+/-2.1 and -76.3+/-1.7 mV, respectively. Co2+ and La3+ accelerated the rate of deactivation, decreased the rate of current activation, and shifted the half-point of the HERG channel activation curve by +53 and +65 mV, respectively. Co2+ shifted the voltage dependence of inactivation by + 14 mV, whereas La3+ had no effect. Co2+ also slowed the onset of IHERG inactivation and accelerated the rate of recovery from inactivation. These results indicate that reduction of IHERG by Co2+ (10 mM) and La3+ (10 microM) during depolarizing pulses is caused by a positive shift in the voltage dependence of activation, and does not result from pore block.