1. A differential inhibition assay was developed for the quantitative determination of cholinesterase isoenzymes acetylcholinesterase (AChE; EC 184.108.40.206), cholinesterase (BChE; EC 220.127.116.11), and atypical cholinesterase in small samples of left ventricular porcine heart muscle. 2. The assay is based on kinetic analysis of irreversible cholinesterase inhibition by the organophosphorus compound N,N'-di-isopropylphosphorodiamidic fluoride (mipafox). With acetylthiocholine (ASCh) as substrate (1.25 mM), hydrolytic activities (A) of cholinesterase isoenzymes were determined after preincubation (60 min, 25 degrees C) of heart muscle samples with either saline (total activity, A tau), 7 microM mipafox (AM1), or 0.8 mM mipafox (AM2): (BChE) = A tau-AM1, (AChE) = AM1-AM2, (Atypical ChE) = AM2. 3. The mipafox differential inhibition assay was used to determine the substrate hydrolysis patterns of myocardial cholinesterases with ASCh, acetyl-beta-methylthiocholine (A beta MSCh), propionylthiocholine (PSCh), and butyrylthiocholine (BSCh). The substrate specificities of myocardial AChE and BChE resemble those of erythrocyte AChE and serum BChE, respectively. Michaelis constants KM with ASCh were determined to be 0.15 mM for AChE and 1.4 mM for BChE. 4. Atypical cholinesterase, in respect to both substrate specificity and inhibition kinetics, differs from cholinesterase activities of vertebrate tissue and, up to now, could be identified exclusively in heart muscle. The enzyme's Michaelis constant with ASCh was determined to be 4.0 mM. 5. The reversible inhibitory effects of physostigmine (eserine) and quinidine on heart muscle cholinesterases were investigated using the differential inhibition assay. With all three isoenzymes, the inhibition kinetics of both substances were strictly competitive. The physostigmine inhibition of AChE was most pronounced (Ki = 0.22 microM). Quinidine most potently inhibited myocardial BChE (Ki = 35 microM).