The role of calcium in control of HCl secretion by the gastric parietal cell was examined using a recently available intracellular calcium-releasing agent, thapsigargin, which has been shown, in some cell types, to induce sustained elevation of intracellular calcium ([Ca2+]i), an action that appears to be independent of inositol lipid breakdown and protein kinase C activation and to be mediated, at least partially, by selective inhibition of endoplasmic reticulum Ca2(+)-ATPase. Using the calcium-sensitive fluorescent probe, fura-2, in combination with digitized video image analysis of single cells as well as standard fluorimetric techniques, we found that thapsigargin induced sustained elevation of [Ca2+]i in single parietal cells and in parietal cells populations. Chelation of medium calcium led to a transient rise and fall in [Ca2+]i, indicating that the sustained elevation in [Ca2+]i in response to thapsigargin was due to both intracellular calcium release and influx. Although thapsigargin appeared to affect the same calcium pool(s) regulated by the cholinergic agonist, carbachol, and the pattern of thapsigargin-induced increases in [Ca2+]i were similar to the plateau phase of the cholinergic response, thapsigargin did not induce acid secretory responses of the same magnitude as those initiated by carbachol (28 vs 600% of basal). The protein kinase C activator, 12-O-tetradecanoyl phorbol-13-acetate (TPA) potentiated the secretory response to thapsigargin but this combined response also did not attain the same magnitude as the maximal cholinergic response. In the presence but not the absence of medium calcium, thapsigargin potentiated acid secretory responses to histamine, which elevate both cyclic AMP (cAMP) and [Ca2+]i in parietal cells, as well as forskolin and cAMP analogues but had no effect on submaximal and an inhibitory effect on maximal cholinergic stimulation. Furthermore, thapsigargin did not fully mimic potentiating interactions between histamine and carbachol, either in magnitude or in the pattern of temporal response. Assuming that the action of thapsigargin is specific for intracellular calcium release mechanisms, these data suggest that 1) sustained influx of calcium is necessary but not sufficient for cholinergic activation of parietal cell HCl secretion and for potentiating interactions between cAMP-dependent agonists and carbachol; 2) mechanisms in addition to elevated [Ca2+]i and protein kinase C activation may be involved in cholinergic regulation; and 3) increases in [Ca2+]i in response to histamine are not directly involved in the mechanism of histamine-stimulated secretion.