The ryanodine receptor is the main Ca(2+)-release structure in skeletal and cardiac sarcoplasmic reticulum. In both tissues, phosphorylation of the ryanodine receptor has been proposed to be involved in the regulation of Ca2+ release. In the present study, we have examined the ability of the purified cardiac ryanodine receptor to serve as a substrate for phosphorylation by exogenously added catalytic subunit of the cyclic AMP (cAMP)-dependent protein kinase (PK-A), cyclic GMP (cGMP)-dependent protein kinase (PK-G), or calmodulin-dependent protein kinase (PK-CaM). A large amount of phosphate incorporation was observed for PK-CaM (938 +/- 48 pmol of Pi/mg of purified channel protein), whereas the level of phosphorylation was considerably lower with PK-A or PK-G (345 +/- 139 and 96 +/- 6 pmol/mg respectively). In addition, endogenous PK-CaM activity co-migrates with the ryanodine receptor through several steps of purification, suggesting a strong association of the two proteins. This endogenous PK-CaM activity is abolished by a PK-CaM-specific synthetic peptide inhibitor. Endogenous cAMP- and cGMP-dependent phosphorylation was not observed in the purified ryanodine-receptor preparation. Taken together, these observations imply that PK-CaM is the physiologically relevant protein kinase, capable of phosphorylating the channel protein to a minimum stoichiometry of 2 mol of Pi per mol of tetramer.