The inhibitory effect of myoplasmic Mg2+ on Ca2+ release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) was examined in mechanically skinned skeletal muscle fibers from pigs of different ryanodine-receptor (RyR) genotypes. In fibers from pigs homozygous for the normal RyR allele, the free Mg2+ concentration ([Mg2+]) had to be lowered from the normal resting level of 1 to approximately 0.1 mM to induce Ca2+ release and a force response. Fibers from pigs heterozygous or homozygous for the RyR allele associated with malignant hyperthermia (MH) needed only a smaller reduction in free [Mg2+] to induce Ca2+ release (reduction to 0.1-0.2 and > or = 0.2 mM, respectively). Dantrolene (20 microM) counteracted the effect of this reduced Mg2+ inhibition in MH muscle. The response of muscle fiber bundles to the caffeine-halothane contracture test in the three genotypes correlated well with the responsiveness of single fibers to reduced [Mg2+]. Thus the abnormal responsiveness of MH muscle to various stimuli may largely result from the reduced ability of myoplasmic Mg2+ to inhibit Ca2+ release from the SR.