Lentiviral vectors were constructed to express the weakly rectifying kidney K(+) channel ROMK1 (Kir1.1), either fused to enhanced green fluorescent protein (EGFP) or as a bicistronic message (ROMK1-CITE-EGFP). The channel was stably expressed in cultured rat hippocampal neurons. Infected cells were maintained for 2-4 wk without decrease in expression level or evidence of viral toxicity, although 15.4 mM external KCl was required to prevent apoptosis of neurons expressing functional ROMK1. No other trophic agents tested could prevent cell death, which was probably caused by K(+) loss. This cell death did not occur in glia, which were able to support ROMK1 expression indefinitely. Functional ROMK1, quantified as the nonnative inward current at -144 mV in 5.4 mM external K(+) blockable by 500 microM Ba(2+), ranged from 1 to 40 pA/pF. Infected neurons exhibited a Ba(2+)-induced depolarization of 7 +/- 2 mV relative to matched EGFP-infected controls, as well as a 30% decrease in input resistance and a shift in action potential threshold of 2.6 +/- 0.5 mV. This led to a shift in the relation between injected current and firing frequency, without changes in spike shape, size, or timing. This shift, which quantifies silencing as a function of ROMK1 expression, was predicted from Hodgkin-Huxley models. No cellular compensatory mechanisms in response to expression of ROMK1 were identified, making ROMK1 potentially useful for transgenic studies of silencing and neurodegeneration, although its lethality in normal K(+) has implications for the use of K(+) channels in gene therapy.