1. The nystatin perforated-patch method was used to record macroscopic currents from anti-trinitrophenyl (TNP) immunoglobulin E (IgE)-sensitized rat basophilic leukaemia (RBL-2H3) cells at 37 degrees C. 2. An inwardly rectifying Ca2+ current (ICa) was activated upon stimulation with the multivalent antigen trinitrophenylated bovine serum albumin (TNP-BSA). Induction of ICa was not observed at room temperature. ICa was reversed and reinduced upon cyclical addition of the monovalent hapten dinitrophenyl (DNP)-lysine and multivalent antigen, indicating that a specific interaction of antigen with IgE was required to elicit ICa. 3. The antigen-induced current was also carried by Ba2+ or Sr2+, and to a lesser extent by Na+, in the nominal absence of Ca2+. ICa did not exhibit time-dependent opening (< or = 1 ms) in response to hyperpolarizing voltage steps to -100 mV, although it did accumulate steady-state inactivation of approximately 40-50% over 100 ms. 4. Two inorganic blockers of antigen-stimulated 45Ca2+ influx and secretion, La3+ and Zn2+, inhibited ICa by approximately 50% at concentrations known to produce 50% block of 45Ca2+ influx. In contrast, cromolyn sodium (0.5 mM) and the L-type Ca2+ channel antagonist nitrendipine (5 microM) had no effect on ICa. 5. ICa also was induced by the intracellular Ca2+ mobilizer thapsigargin. Because the actions of thapsigargin and antigen were not additive, IgE receptor cross-linkage appears to activate the recently described capacitative Ca2+ entry channels.