The uptake and release of Ca2+ were studied in EGTA-skinned aortic strips from spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR strain: SAP = 191 +/- 5 mmHg, n = 27) and normotensive control rats (WKY strain: SAP = 131 +/- 2 mmHg, n = 25). 45Ca uptake was measured as a function of time (0.5 to 30 min.), at pCa 6.6, in the presence of 10 mM of K oxalate. Skinned aortic strips of SHRs accumulated more Ca2+ after 30 min of uptake than those of WKY rats (0.66 +/- 0.05 vs 0.52 +/- 0.03 nmole.mg-1 wet tissue; p < 0.05). A lower activity of the transport system in the hypertensive group was evidenced by the fraction of these maximal uptake values accumulated after 2 minutes of uptake, 56% compared with 98% in the normotensive group. 45Ca release was assayed in skinned aortic strips preloaded for 30 minutes with 45Ca in the absence of K oxalate and desaturated with washing solutions containing 3 nM free Ca2+. 30 mM of caffeine, 5 microM of norepinephrine or 10 microM of IP3 resulted in greater increases in the rates of Ca2+ efflux in WKY than in SHR aortic strips. Net effluxes of Ca2+ upon stimulation with all these drugs were statistically significant only in the hypertensive group due to its slightly but consistently higher Ca2+ content. Changes in both rate of efflux and net efflux induced by 30 mM of caffeine could be blocked by 0.6 mM of ryanodine. The sarcoplasmic reticulum is characterized in the genetically hypertensive rats by a low transport activity of its Ca(2+)-ATPase, a high Ca2+ content and a Ca2+ release mechanism with low responsiveness to stimulation by caffeine, norepinephrine and IP3.