Blood plasma and serum contain factors that activate inwardly rectifying GIRK1/GIRK4 K+ channels in atrial myocytes via one or more non-atropine-sensitive receptors coupled to pertussis-toxin-sensitive G-proteins. This channel is also the target of muscarinic M(2) receptors activated by the physiological release of acetylcholine from parasympathetic nerve endings. By using a combination of HPLC and TLC techniques with matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization-time-of-flight MS, we purified and identified sphingosine 1-phosphate (SPP) and sphingosylphosphocholine (SPC) as the plasma and serum factors responsible for activating the inwardly rectifying K+ channel (I(K)). With the use of MS the concentration of SPC was estimated at 50 nM in plasma and 130 nM in serum; those concentrations exceeded the 1.5 nM EC(50) measured in guinea-pig atrial myocytes. With the use of reverse-transcriptase-mediated PCR and/or Western blot analysis, we detected Edg1, Edg3, Edg5 and Edg8 as well as OGR1 sphingolipid receptor transcripts and/or proteins. In perfused guinea-pig hearts, SPC exerted a negative chronotropic effect with a threshold concentration of 1 microM. SPC was completely removed after perfusion through the coronary circulation at a concentration of 10 microM. On the basis of their constitutive presence in plasma, the expression of specific receptors, and a mechanism of ligand inactivation, we propose that SPP and SPC might have a physiologically relevant role in the regulation of the heart.