The molecular genetic approach to studying K+ channels has revealed that at least four subfamilies of voltage-gated K+ channels originally discovered in Drosophila are conserved in mice and humans. This conservation of the K+ channel subfamilies Shaker, Shal, Shab, and Shaw suggests that not only the broad outlines of membrane electrical properties but also many molecular details as well evolved in the parent species ancestral to both invertebrate and vertebrate life. Shaker, Shal, Shab, and Shaw K+ channels have similar structures, but appear to be independent channel systems: when co-expressed in Xenopus oocytes, all four function independently. These four K+ channel subfamilies may be part of an essential 'set' of excitable channels required by most nervous systems. The task now remaining is to understand the functions of each member of the set.