Sarcoplasmic reticulum membrane vesicles isolated from frog skeletal muscle display high conductance calcium channels when fused into phospholipid bilayers. The channels are selective for calcium and barium over Tris. The fractional open time was voltage-independent (-40 to +25 mV), but was steeply dependent on the free cis [Ca2+] (P0 = 0.02 at 10 microM cis Ca2+ and 0.77 at 150 microM Ca2+; estimated Hill coefficient: 1.6). Addition of ATP (1 mM; cis) further increased P0 from 0.77 to 0.94. Calcium activation was reversed by addition of EGTA to the cis compartment. Magnesium (2 mM) increased the frequency of rapid closures and 8 mM magnesium decreased the current amplitude from 3.4 to 1.2 pA at 0 mV, suggesting a reversible fast blockade. Addition of increasing concentrations of inositol (1, 4, 5)-triphosphate (cis), increased P0 from 0.10 +/- 0.01 (mean +/- SEM) in the control to 0.85 +/- 0.02 at 50 microM in an approximately sigmoidal fashion, with an apparent half-maximal activation at 15 microM inositol (1, 4, 5)-trisphosphate in the presence of 40 microM cis Ca2+. Lower concentrations of this agonist were required to produce a significant increase in P0 when 10 microM or less cis Ca2+ were used. The channel was blocked by the addition to the cis compartment of either 0.5 mM lanthanum, 0.5 microM ruthenium red, or 200 nM ryanodine, all known inhibitors of Ca2+ release from sarcoplasmic reticulum vesicles. These results demonstrate the presence of calcium channels in the sarcoplasmic reticulum from frog skeletal muscle with a pharmacological profile consistent with a role in excitation contraction coupling and with the hypothesis that inositol ( 1,4,5)-trisphosphate is a physiological agonist in this process.