The copper containing phthalocyanine dyes, alcian blue, copper phthalocyanine tetrasulfonic acid, and Luxol fast blue MBSN are found to induce rapid calcium efflux from actively loaded sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) vesicles. Alcian blue (5 microM), with 1 mM free Mg2+ triggered Ca2+ efflux at rates greater than 20 nmol/mg of SR/s. As in the case of Ca2+ efflux induced by calcium, heavy metals, or SH oxidation with Cu2+/cysteine, efflux induced by phthalocyanines is also stimulated by adenine containing nucleotides and inhibited by millimolar Mg2+ and submicromolar ruthenium red (RR). In addition, analogs of RR, such as hexamminecobalt(III) chloride or hexammineruthenium(III) chloride also inhibit Ca2+ efflux but are effective at somewhat higher concentrations (approximately 50 microM). Calcium release stimulated by phthalocyanines is specific for SR derived from the terminal cisternae region rather than longitudinal SR. Preincubation of alcian blue with the reducing agents, sodium dithionite, dithiothreitol, or cysteine causes complete loss of Ca2+ release activity from SR vesicles. Reoxidation of the alcian blue leads to return of the Ca2+ release activity of the phthalocyanine dye. The copper containing phthalocyanine dyes appear to cause rapid Ca2+ release from SR vesicles by oxidizing sulfhydryl groups associated with the calcium release channel. Moreover, phthalocyanines appear to act by oxidizing a pair of neighboring sulfhydryls to a disulfide because subsequent additions of the reducing agent dithiothreitol promote the closure of the Ca2+ channel and calcium re-uptake.