In this study, mercuric chloride was applied to the primary cultures of mouse pancreatic islet cells for studying its effects on resting membrane potential and the intracellular free calcium ion concentration ([Ca 2+), using the techniques of electrophysiology and fluorometry. It was observed that mercuric chloride (1-100 microM) caused a rapid and sustained depolarization, and induced a rapid first phase and a large sustained second phase of elevation in fura-2 fluorescence ratio in islet cells. The depolarization and increased lCa2+]i induced by mercuric chloride could be inhibited by dithiothreitol (a sulfhydryl-containing reducing agent). Removing Ca2+ from the external medium inhibited the mercuric chloride-induced elevation of [Ca2+]i. The increased [Ca2+]i may also originate from the endoplasmic reticulum of pancreatic islet cells, since caffeine (an activator of Ca2+ release from endoplasmic reticulum) and thapsigargin (an inhibitor of endoplasmic reticulum Ca2+-ATPase) could antagonize the effect of mercuric chloride. Moreover, in the absence of glucose in the medium, the response of islet cells to mercuric chloride was a rapid first phase of increased [Ca2+]i followed by a small sustained second phase. Readministration of 5 mM glucose was sufficient but transient to restore sustained phase of increased [Ca2+]i. The increase of [Ca2+]i in islet cells induced by a lower concentration of mercuric chloride (5 microM) was potentiated in higher glucose (7.5 mM) medium. Tolbutamide, an inhibitor of the ATP-sensitive K+-channel, could also inhibit the effect of mercuric chloride. These findings suggest that mercuric chloride initially interacts with the sulfhydryl groups of membrane-bound proteins, which may be an ATP-sensitive K+ channel, to cause depolarization of the islet cells. This depolarization triggers Ca2+ influx and then the release of Ca2+ from the endoplasmic reticulum.