Cationic L-amino acids enter cardiac-muscle cells through carrier-mediated transport. To study this process in detail, L-[(14)C]lysine uptake experiments were conducted within a 10(3)-fold range of L-lysine concentrations in giant sarcolemmal vesicles prepared from rat cardiac ventricles. Vesicles had a surface-to-volume ratio comparable with that of an epithelial cell, thus representing a suitable system for initial uptake rate studies. Two Na(+)-independent, N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive uptake components were found, one with high apparent affinity (K(m)=222+/-71 microM) and low transport capacity (V(max)=121+/-36 pmol/min per mg of vesicle protein) and the other with low apparent affinity (K(m)=16+/-4 mM) and high capacity (V(max)=4.0+/-0.4 nmol/min per mg of vesicle protein). L-Lysine uptake mediated by both components was stimulated by the presence of intravesicular L-lysine as well as by valinomycin-induced membrane hyperpolarization. Altogether, this behaviour is consistent with the functional properties of the CAT-1 and CAT-2A members of the system y(+) family of cationic amino acid transporters. Furthermore, mRNA transcripts for these two carrier proteins were identified in freshly isolated rat cardiac myocytes, the amount of CAT-1 mRNA, relative to beta-actin, being 33-fold larger than that of CAT-2A. These two transporters appear to function simultaneously as a homoeostatic device that supplies cardiac-muscle cells with cationic amino acids under a variety of metabolic conditions. Analysis of two carriers acting in parallel with such an array of kinetic parameters shows significant activity of the low-affinity component even at amino acid plasma levels far below its K(m).