Ryanodine affects excitation-contraction coupling in skeletal and cardiac muscle by specifically interacting with the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) Ca2+ release channel. The effect of the drug at the single channel level was studied by incorporating skeletal and cardiac SR vesicles into planar lipid bilayers. The two channels were activated by micromolar free Ca2+ and millimolar ATP and inhibited by Mg2+ and ruthenium red. Addition of micromolar concentrations of ryanodine decreased about twofold the unit conductance of the Ca2+- and ATP-activated skeletal and cardiac channels. A second effect of ryanodine was to increase the open probability (Po) of the channels in such a way that Po was close to unity under a variety of activating and inactivating conditions. The effects of ryanodine were long lasting in that removal of ryanodine by perfusion did not return the channels into their fully conducting state.