Exploiting the optical sectioning capabilities of laser scanning confocal microscopy and using parameter-specific fluorescent probes, we determined the distribution of pH, free Ca2+, electrical potential, and volume inside cultured adult rabbit cardiac myocytes during ATP depletion and reductive stress with cyanide and 2-deoxyglucose ("chemical hypoxia"). During normoxic incubations, myocytes exhibited a cytosolic pH of 7.1 and a mitochondrial pH of 8.0 (delta pH = 0.9 units). Sarcolemmal membrane potential (delta psi) was -80 mV, and mitochondrial delta psi was as high as -100 mV, yielding a mitochondrial protonmotive force (delta p) of -155 mV (delta P = delta psi - 60 delta pH). After 30 min of chemical hypoxia, mitochondrial delta pH decreased to 0.5 pH units, but mitochondrial delta psi remained essentially unchanged. By 40 min, delta pH was collapsed, and mitochondrial and cytosolic free Ca2+ began to increase. Mitochondrial and sarcolemmal delta psi remained high. as Ca2+ rose, myocytes shortened, hypercontracted, and blebbed with a 30% decrease of cell volume. After hypercontraction, extensive mitochondrial Ca2+ loading occurred. After another few minutes, mitochondrial depolarized completely and released their load of Ca2+. After many more minutes, the sarcolemmal permeability barrier broke down, and viability was lost. These studies demonstrate a sequence of subcellular ionic and electrical changes that may underlie the progression to irreversible hypoxic injury.