The caffeine-sensitive Ca2+ release pathway in skeletal muscle was identified and characterized by studying the release of 45Ca2+ from heavy sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) vesicles and by incorporating the vesicles or the purified Ca2+ release channel protein complex into planar lipid bilayers. First-order rate constants for 45Ca2+ efflux of 1 s-1 were obtained in the presence of 1-10 microM free Ca2+ or 2 X 10(-9) M free Ca2+ plus 20 mM caffeine. Caffeine- and Ca2+-induced 45Ca2+ release were potentiated by ATP and Mg.ATP, and were both inhibited by Mg2+. Dimethylxanthines were similarly (3,9-dimethylxanthine) or more (1,7-, 1,3-, and 3,7-dimethylxanthine) effective than caffeine in increasing the 45Ca2+ efflux rate. 1,9-Dimethylxanthine and 1,3-dimethyluracil (which lacks the imidazole ring) did not appreciably stimulate 45Ca2+ efflux. Recordings of calcium ion currents through single channels showed that the Ca2+- and ATP-gated SR Ca2+ release channel is activated by addition of caffeine to the cis (cytoplasmic) and not the trans (lumenal) side of the channel in the bilayer. The single channel measurements further revealed that caffeine activated Ca2+ release by increasing the number and duration of open channel events without a change of unit conductance (107 pS in 50 mM Ca2+ trans). These results suggest that caffeine exerts its Ca2+ releasing effects in muscle by activating the high-conductance, ligand-gated Ca2+ release channel of sarcoplasmic reticulum.