Interactions between Ca2+, calmodulin and turkey gizzard myosin light chain kinase have been studied by equilibrium gel filtration and analyzed in terms of the theory of free energy coupling as formulated by Huang and King for calmodulin-regulated systems (Current Topics in Cellular Regulation 27, 1966-1971, 1985). Direct binding studies revealed that upon interaction with the enzyme, calmodulin acquires strong positive cooperativity in Ca2+-binding. The determination of the Ca2+-binding constants is inherently approximative due to the apparent homotropic cooperativity; therefore a statistical chi 2 analysis was carried out to delimit the formation-, and subsequently the stoichiometric Ca2+-binding constants. Whereas the first two stoichiometric Ca2+-binding constants of enzyme-bound CaM do not differ or are at the upmost 10-fold higher than those in free calmodulin, the third Ca2+ ion binds with an at least 70-fold and more likely 3000-fold higher affinity constant. The binding constant for the fourth Ca2+ is only 5-fold higher than the corresponding one in free calmodulin, thus creating a plateau at 3 bound Ca2+ in the isotherm. Direct binding of Ca2+-free calmodulin to myosin light chain kinase at 10(-7) M free Ca2+ yielded a l/l stoichiometry and an affinity constant of 2.2 x 10(5) M-1. It is thus anticipated that in resting smooth muscle ([Ca2+] less than or equal to 10(-7) M) more than half of the enzyme is bound to metal-free calmodulin. Analysis of the enzymatic activation of myosin light chain kinase at different concentrations of calmodulin and Ca2+ revealed that this Ca2+-free complex is inactive and that activation is concomitant with the formation of the enzyme.calmodulin.Ca3 complex.