Studies in erythrocytes indicate that staphylococcal alpha-toxin generates discrete transmembrane channels with an effective diameter of 2-3 nm. In cultured, confluent, pig pulmonary arterial endothelial cells we studied the triggering of the arachidonic acid cascade and its dependence on calcium influx, possibly through toxin-created pores. In endothelial cells alpha-toxin time dependently (5-30 min) and dose dependently (0.1-8 micrograms/ml) stimulated the release of radiolabeled arachidonic acid and prostacyclin (PGI2) production in similar amounts as the calcium ionophore A23187 (10 microM). Preincubation of alpha-toxin with neutralizing antibodies abolished the effect. The toxin response was strictly dose dependent on extracellular calcium but not on magnesium. The toxin effect was accompanied by an up to 10-fold increased passive permeability of pulmonary arterial endothelial cells for 45Ca. Interference with calcium-calmodulin function (trifluoperazine, W7) dose dependently reduced production of PGI2, but blockers of physiological calcium channels (verapamil, nimodipine, nisoldipine, and diltiazem) did not. In contrast to the effect of the ionophore A23187, the toxin effect was accompanied by a release of potassium, but in neither system was there a release of lactate dehydrogenase. In addition, alpha-toxin but not ionophore-exposed endothelial cells showed an increased passive influx of small radiolabeled markers (45Ca and [3H]sucrose) but not of large markers [( 3H]inulin and [3H]dextran). These data are consistent with the concept that alpha-toxin triggers the arachidonic acid cascade in pulmonary arterial endothelial cells by calcium influx and suggest that this calcium influx may proceed through toxin-created transmembrane channels.