The effect of energy deprivation and H2O2 on the contraction, shape, and intracellular free Ca2+ concentration of myocardial muscle cells was investigated using suspensions of freshly isolated, electrically stimulated rat ventricle heart cells. The mitochondrial uncoupling agent carbonyl cyanide m-chlorophenylhydrazone (CCCP) was used to decrease the rate of ATP synthesis. At 0.9 mm extracellular Ca2+, CCCP (0.25 μm) reduced the number of contracting cells by 50% after 5 min, and the number of rod-shaped cells by 40% after 10 min. The effects of CCCP were associated with a substantial decrease in measured cellular ATP concentrations. The deleterious effect of exposure of myocytes to CCCP for periods of up to 5 min was enhanced by an increase in the extracellular Ca2+ concentration, but markedly reduced in the absence of electrical stimulation. Verapamil protected myocytes from the deleterious effects of CCCP during the first 5 min but not at later times. In the presence of 46 mm extracellular K+, CCCP caused a marked increase in the myoplasmic free Ca2+ concentration (measured using quin2). This effect was inhibited by verapamil and was not observed in the absence of K+-induced depolarization. Exposure of myocytes to H2O2 (0.5 mm) caused a substantial decrease both in the number of cells which exhibited normal end-to-end synchronous contraction and in the total number of cells which contracted either partially or fully. The effects of H2O2 were more pronounced at higher concentrations of the peroxide, with longer times of exposure to the agent, and at higher concentrations of extracellular Ca2+, and were partially reversed by dimethyl sulfoxide. The results indicate that both ATP deprivation and H2O2, possibly through the generation of free radicals, cause substantial and rapid damage to cardiac myocytes and induce the movement of additional Ca2+ across the sarcolemma to the myoplasm. In the case of ATP deprivation, this initially occurs through voltage-operated channels.