Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death worldwide, with ischemic heart disease alone accounting for >12% of all deaths, more than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, lung, and breast cancer combined. Heart disease has been the leading cause of death in the United States for the past 85 years and is a major cause of disability and health-care expenditures. The cardiac conditions most likely to result in death include heart failure and arrhythmias, both a consequence of ischemic coronary disease and myocardial infarction, though chronic hypertension and valvular diseases are also important causes of heart failure. Sodium-calcium exchange (NCX) is the dominant calcium (Ca2+) efflux mechanism in cardiac cells. Using ventricular-specific NCX knockout mice, we have found that NCX is also an essential regulator of cardiac contractility independent of sarcoplasmic reticulum Ca2+ load. During the upstroke of the action potential, sodium (Na+) ions enter the diadic cleft space between the sarcolemma and the sarcoplasmic reticulum. The rise in cleft Na+, in conjunction with depolarization, causes NCX to transiently reverse. Ca2+ entry by this mechanism then "primes" the diadic cleft so that subsequent Ca2+ entry through Ca2+ channels can more efficiently trigger Ca2+ release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum. In NCX knockout mice, this mechanism is inoperative (Na+ current has no effect on the Ca2+ transient), and excitation-contraction coupling relies upon the elevated diadic cleft Ca2+ that arises from the slow extrusion of cytoplasmic Ca2+ by the ATP-dependent sarcolemmal Ca2+ pump. Thus, our data support the conclusion that NCX is an important regulator of cardiac contractility. These findings suggest that manipulation of NCX may be beneficial in the treatment of heart failure.