BACKGROUND: The degree to which different volatile anesthetics depress carotid body hypoxic response relates to their ability to activate TASK potassium channels. Most commonly, volatile anesthetic pairs act additively at their molecular targets. We examined whether this applied to carotid body TASK channels. METHODS: We studied halothane and isoflurane effects on hypoxia-evoked rise in intracellular calcium (Cai, using the indicator Indo-1) in isolated neonatal rat glomus cells, and TASK single-channel activity (patch clamping) in native glomus cells and HEK293 cell line cells transiently expressing TASK-1. RESULTS: Halothane (5%) depressed glomus cell Cai hypoxic response (mean ± SD, 94 ± 4% depression; P < 0.001 vs. control). Isoflurane (5%) had a less pronounced effect (53 ± 10% depression; P < 0.001 vs. halothane). A mix of 3% isoflurane/1.5% halothane depressed cell Cai response (51 ± 17% depression) to a lesser degree than 1.5% halothane alone (79 ± 15%; P = 0.001), but similar to 3% isoflurane alone (44 ± 22%; P = 0.224), indicating subadditivity. Halothane and isoflurane increased glomus cell TASK-1/TASK-3 activity, but mixes had a lesser effect than that seen with halothane alone: 4% halothane/4% isoflurane yielded channel open probabilities 127 ± 55% above control, versus 226 ± 12% for 4% halothane alone (P = 0.009). Finally, in HEK293 cell line cells, progressively adding isoflurane (1.5 to 5%) to halothane (2.5%) reduced TASK-1 channel activity from 120 ± 38% above control, to 88 ± 48% (P = 0.034). CONCLUSIONS: In all three experimental models, the effects of isoflurane and halothane combinations were quantitatively consistent with the modeling of weak and strong agonists competing at a common receptor on the TASK channel.