1. The effects of alpha 1-adrenoceptor stimulation on transmembrane potential, currents and ion fluxes were investigated in multicellular preparations and/or single cells obtained from the left atrium of rat hearts. 2. In multicellular preparations, phenylephrine caused a concentration-dependent positive inotropic effect, an increase in action potential duration, and a decrease in resting potential; the effects were antagonized by phentolamine. 3. In the presence of phenylephrine (100 mumol/1), two levels of resting potential were observed when the preparations were, alternately, electrically stimulated or kept at rest (-74 +/- 1 mV during activity and -62 +/- 4 mV at rest; mean +/- S.E.M.; n = 9). 4. In resting preparations, the depolarization in response to phenylephrine was eliminated in low-Na+ solution (12 mmol/l) and antagonized by tetrodotoxin (10 mumol/l). 5. The phenylephrine-induced depolarization was also seen in nominally Ca(2+)-free solution and in the presence of (-)-devapamil (1 mumol/l). 6. The alkylating agent N-ethyl-maleimide (30 mumol/l) abolished the depolarizing effect of phenylephrine. 7. Phorbol 12,13-dibutyrate (10 mumol/l) also abolished the depolarizing effect of phenylephrine. 8. Phenylephrine caused a significant increase of 22Na+ uptake in resting preparations and of 45Ca2+ uptake in beating preparations. 9. The depolarizing effect of phenylephrine was also observed in single atrial myocytes. Steady-state membrane currents in response to 500 ms depolarizing and hyperpolarizing voltage clamp steps were decreased. The cross-over of I-V curves under control and test conditions was at about -70 mV. The effects of phenylephrine were antagonized in the presence of phentolamine. 10. After suppression of potassium currents by substitution of CsCl for internal and external KCl ([KCl]o), phenylephrine had no effect on membrane currents. 11. In conclusion, we presume the following sequence of events in response to phenylephrine in rat atrial heart muscle. First, the stimulation of alpha 1-adrenoceptors decreases the K+ conductance thereby producing a depolarization in the presence of an inward current. Second, the change of the membrane potential in the depolarizing direction induces a TTX-sensitive Na+ window current which further propels the depolarization. Third, the increase in Na+ influx may increase Ca2+ influx by activating the Na(+)-Ca2+ exchange in mechanism. The greater influx of Ca2+ may contribute to the positive inotropic effect in response to phenylephrine.