In skeletal muscle fibers, the intracellular loop between domains II and III of the alpha(1)-subunit of the dihydropyridine receptor (DHPR) may directly activate the adjacent Ca(2+) release channel in the sarcoplasmic reticulum. We examined the effects of synthetic peptide segments of this loop on Ca(2+) release in mechanically skinned skeletal muscle fibers with functional excitation-contraction coupling. In rat fibers at physiological Mg(2+) concentration ([Mg(2+)]; 1 mM), a 20-residue skeletal muscle DHPR peptide [A(S(20)); Thr(671)-Leu(690); 30 microM], shown previously to induce Ca(2+) release in a triad preparation, caused only small spontaneous force responses in approximately 40% of fibers, although it potentiated responses to depolarization and caffeine in all fibers. The COOH-terminal half of A(S(20)) [A(S(10))] induced much larger spontaneous responses but also caused substantial inhibition of Ca(2+) release to both depolarization and caffeine. Both peptides induced or potentiated Ca(2+) release even when the voltage sensors were inactivated, indicating direct action on the Ca(2+) release channels. The corresponding 20-residue cardiac DHPR peptide [A(C(20)); Thr(793)-Ala(812)] was ineffective, but its COOH-terminal half [A(C(10))] had effects similar to A(S(20)). In the presence of lower [Mg(2+)] (0.2 mM), exposure to either A(S(20)) or A(C(10)) (30 microM) induced substantial Ca(2+) release. Peptide C(S) (100 microM), a loop segment reported to inhibit Ca(2+) release in triads, caused partial inhibition of depolarization-induced Ca(2+) release. In toad fibers, each of the A peptides had effects similar to or greater than those in rat fibers. These findings suggest that the A and C regions of the skeletal DHPR II-III loop may have important roles in vivo.