1. Raising the intracellular [Ca2+] for 10 s at 23 degrees C abolished depolarization-induced force responses in mechanically skinned muscle fibres of toad and rat (half-maximal effect at 10 and 23 microM, respectively), without affecting the ability of caffeine or low [Mg2+] to open the ryanodine receptor (RyR)/Ca2+ release channels. Thus, excitation-contraction coupling was lost, even though the Ca2+ release channels were still functional. Coupling could not be restored in the duration of an experiment (up to 1 h). 2. The Ca(2+)-dependent uncoupling had a Q10 > 3.5, and was three times slower at pH 5.8 than at pH 7.1. Sr2+ caused similar uncoupling at twenty times higher concentration, but Mg2+, even at 10 mM, was ineffective. Uncoupling was not noticeably affected by removal of ATP or application of protein kinase or phosphatase inhibitors. 3. Confocal laser scanning microscopy showed that the transverse tubular system was sealed in its entirety in mechanically skinned fibres and that its integrity was maintained in uncoupled fibres. Electron microscopy revealed distorted or severed triad junctions and Z-line aberrations in uncoupled fibres. 4. Only when uncoupling was induced at a relatively slow rate (e.g. over 60 s with 2.5 microM Ca2+) could it be prevented by the protease inhibitor leupeptin (1 mM). Immunostaining of Western blots showed no evidence of proteolysis of the RyR, the alpha 1-subunit of dihydropyridine receptor (DHPR) or triadin in uncoupled fibres. 5. Fibres which, whilst intact, were stimulated repeatedly by potassium depolarization with simultaneous application of 30 mM caffeine showed reduced responsiveness after skinning to depolarization but not to caffeine. Rapid release of endogenous Ca2+, or raised [Ca2+] under conditions which minimized the loss of endogenous diffusible myoplasmic molecules from the skinned fibre, caused complete uncoupling. Taken together, these results suggest that Ca(2+)-dependent uncoupling can also occur in intact fibres. 6. This Ca(2+)-dependent loss of depolarization-induced Ca2+ release may play an important feedback role in muscle by stopping Ca2+ release in localized areas where it is excessive and may be responsible for long-lasting muscle fatigue after severe exercise, as well as contributing to muscle weakness in various dystrophies.