Sphingosylphosphocholine (SPC) modulates Ca2+ release from isolated cardiac sarcoplasmic reticulum membranes; 50 microM SPC induces the release of 70 80% of the accumulated calcium. SPC release calcium from cardiac sarcoplasmic reticulum through the ryanodine receptor, since the release is inhibited by the ryanodine receptor channel antagonists ryanodine. Ruthenium Red and sphingosine. In intact cardiac myocytes, even in the absence of extracellular calcium. SPC causes a rise in diastolic Ca2+, which is greatly reduced when the sarcoplasmic reticulum is depleted of Ca2+ by prior thapsigargin treatment. SPC action on the ryanodine receptor is Ca(2+)-dependent. SPC shifts to the left the Ca(2+)-dependence of [3H]ryanodine binding, but only at high pCa values, suggesting that SPC might increase the sensitivity to calcium of the Ca(2+)-induced Ca(2+)-release mechanism. At high calcium concentrations (pCa 4.0 or lower), where [3H]ryanodine binding is maximally stimulated, no effect of SPC is observed. We conclude that SPC releases calcium from cardiac sarcoplasmic reticulum membranes by activating the ryanodine receptor and possibly another intracellular Ca(2+)-release channel, the sphingolipid Ca(2+)-release-mediating protein of endoplasmic reticulum (SCaMPER) [Mao, Kim, Almenoff, Rudner, Kearney and Kindman (1996) Proc.Natl.Acad.Sci. U.S.A 93, 1993-1996], which we have identified for the first time in cardiac tissue.