The effects of free-radical generating systems and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors on the action potentials and contractile force in guinea-pig cardiac muscles were examined using conventional microelectrode and whole-cell voltage-clamp methods at 36 degrees C. Hydrogen peroxide (30-100 microM) prolonged 50%, 75% and 90% repolarization of action-potential duration (APD) approximately 15-25 min after its application. But the longer exposure reversed the APD shortening in a concentration-dependent manner. Other action-potential parameters were not altered to a significant extent. The contractile force was increased. Longer exposure inhibited the enhanced force (but it was still larger than control). The effects on the spontaneous action potential from right atrial muscle were almost the same. In whole-cell voltage-clamp experiments, H2O2 (100 microM) inhibited L-type Ca2+ current and enhanced delayed rectifier K+ current. The effects of light-activated rose bengal (10-100 nM) on the APD were similar to, but more potent than, those of H2O2. The response was observed rapidly after a light illumination. During exposure to rose bengal (100 nM), abnormal spontaneous action potentials or arrhythmias such as a bigeminy occurred, presumably because of early and delayed afterdepolarizations. The responses were irreversible. At 300 microM ACE inhibitors, captopril and enalapril, protected the changes induced by these free radicals. These results indicate that H2O2 has a dual, time-dependent, action on the APD and rose bengal with light illumination produced the responses rapidly. The oxygen-derived free radicals increased [Ca]i and then cellular Ca2+ overload occurred. These responses were protected by ACE inhibitors.