The roles of heterotrimeric GTP-binding regulatory proteins (G-proteins) and inositol polyphosphates in the mechanism by which vasopressin stimulates Ca2+ inflow in hepatocytes were investigated by using single cells loaded with fura2 by microinjection. Vasopressin-stimulated Ca2+ inflow was mimicked by microinjection of guanosine 5'-[gamma-thio]triphosphate (GTP[S]) or guanosine 5'-[beta gamma-imido]triphosphate to the cells, but not adenosine 5'-[gamma-thio]triphosphate (ATP[S]) or guanosine 5'-[beta-thio]diphosphate (GDP[S]). Extracellular Gd3+ (5 microM) inhibited both vasopressin- and GTP[S]-stimulated Ca2+ inflow. GDP[S], but not GMP, administered to hepatocytes by microinjection, completely inhibited vasopressin-stimulated Ca2+ inflow and partially inhibited vasopressin-induced release of Ca2+ from intracellular stores. The microinjection of pertussis toxin had no effect either on the release of Ca2+ from intracellular stores or on Ca2+ inflow induced by vasopressin, but completely inhibited changes in these processes induced by epidermal growth factor (EGF). Hepatocytes isolated from rats treated with pertussis toxin for 24 h exhibited no vasopressin- or GTP[S]-stimulated Ca2+ inflow, whereas the vasopressin-stimulated release of Ca2+ from intracellular stores was similar to that observed for control cells. Heparin or ATP[S] inhibited, or delayed the onset of, both vasopressin-induced release of Ca2+ from intracellular stores and vasopressin-stimulated Ca2+ inflow. Vasopressin-induced oscillations in intracellular [Ca2+] were observed in some heparin-treated cells. It is concluded that the stimulation by vasopressin of Ca2+ inflow to hepatocytes requires inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphate (InsP3) and, by implication, the pertussis-toxin-insensitive G-protein required for the activation of phospholipase C beta [Taylor, Chae, Rhee and Exton (1991) Nature (London) 350, 516-518], and another G-protein which is slowly ADP-ribosylated by pertussis toxin and acts between InsP3 and the putative plasma-membrane Ca2+ channel. EGF-stimulated Ca2+ inflow involves at least one G-protein which is rapidly ADP-ribosylated and is most likely required for InsP3 formation.