The interaction of methylmercury (MeHg) with various inhibitors of mitochondrial function (dinitrophenol, 50 microM; dicoumarol, 100 microM; valinomycin, 20 microM; and ruthenium red, 20 microM) on spontaneous quantal release of acetylcholine was tested at the neuromuscular junction of the rat. The objective was to determine whether these mitochondrial inhibitors blocked the MeHg-induced increase of spontaneous release of acetylcholine, an effect measured electrophysiologically as increased miniature endplate potential (MEPP) frequency. MEPPs were recorded from myofibers of the rat hemidiaphragm using conventional, intracellular microelectrode recording techniques. When given alone, all four inhibitors increased MEPP frequency from resting levels of 1-2/sec (Hz) to approximately 10-60 Hz after a latency which ranged from 5 to 30 min. MEPP frequency subsequently returned to control levels. Subsequent concomitant application of MeHg (100 microM) with dinitrophenol, dicoumarol, or valinomycin increased MEPP frequency sharply to peak values of 40-60 Hz after 15-20 min. MEPP frequency subsided to pre-MeHg levels 10 min later. The time course and peak MEPP frequency elicited by MeHg after pretreatment with these uncouplers were similar to results obtained in preparations treated with MeHg alone. Ruthenium red, a putative specific inhibitor of the Ca2+ uptake uniporter in mitochondria, increased MEPP frequency to 12 Hz after 8.5 min when given alone. MEPP frequency returned to control levels approximately 10 min later. Subsequent application of MeHg and ruthenium red for up to 80 min failed to increase MEPP frequency. The inability of MeHg to increase MEPP frequency in ruthenium red-treated preparations was not due to depletion of acetylcholine nor to block of postjunctional receptors by ruthenium red since subsequent treatment with La3+ (2 mM) increased MEPP frequency to 12.5 Hz within 10 min. Thus, ruthenium red blocked the stimulatory effect of MeHg on MEPP frequency while uncouplers of oxidative phosphorylation and a K+ ionophore did not. The results with ruthenium red are consistent with the proposal that MeHg may block mitochondrial uptake of Ca2+ or promote its release, leading to an increased free cytosolic Ca2+ concentration which in turn stimulates spontaneous release of acetylcholine.