A smooth muscle cell line (H7CM) was established from the ciliary muscle of a 1-day-old human infant. The cultured cells had a normal female karyotype (46 XX) and could be maintained in cell culture for at least 11 generations. A common feature of confluent cultures was the presence of abundant bundles of 6-7 nm microfilaments associated with dense bodies. Both the ultrastructural appearance and the presence of smooth muscle-specific alpha-isoactin (also present in the human ciliary muscle in situ) support the smooth muscle origin of the H7CM cell line. Continuous membrane voltage (Vm) recordings were obtained in confluent monolayers of H7CM cells using glass microelectrodes. Resting Vm in 105 impalements averaged -66.2 +/- 0.7 mV (mean +/- standard error of the mean). In this system, rapid membrane transients induced by changing of the superfusing test solutions were detectable. Relative K+ conductance was characterized, and the contribution of electrogenic sodium/potassium adenosine triphosphatase to Vm was investigated. Under control conditions, H7CM cells were electrically quiescent. However, action potentials could be induced by application of 10 mM barium. Barium-induced action potentials were not abolished by removal of extracellular Na+ nor were they inhibited by the presence of tetrodotoxin. However, they were blocked by verapamil, fulfilling criteria believed to be typical for smooth muscle cells. Acetylcholine, carbachol, and to a lesser extent pilocarpine induced a reversible Vm depolarization. The effect of acetylcholine was blocked by atropine, implying muscarinic receptor involvement in the Vm response. Collectively, these findings show the potential usefulness of cultured ciliary muscle cells in understanding further the cellular mechanisms underlying drug-induced contraction of the human ciliary muscle.