Excitation contraction (EC) coupling in muscle cells involves the movement of calcium through the calcium release channel of the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) membrane known as the ryanodine receptor. We have recently shown that the novel second messenger, sphingosine, can block calcium release from skinned skeletal muscle fibers and from isolated skeletal muscle SR membranes (Sabbadini et al., J Biol Chem 267: 15475-15484, 1992). In this report, we demonstrate that sphingosine also inhibits calcium release from isolated canine cardiac SR membranes containing the ryanodine receptor when release is induced by caffeine, doxorubicin or by calcium. Sphingosine also prevents the augmentation of [3H]-ryanodine binding normally produced by caffeine and doxorubicin and exerts noncompetitive inhibition with regard to both releasing agents. Sphingosine significantly reduces in a dose-dependent manner [3H]-ryanodine binding to the high affinity site of the receptor and increases by several-fold the Kd for binding, which is consistent with a blocking action of sphingosine on the ryanodine receptor calcium channel. Sphingosine inhibits the extent of calcium-induced calcium release (CICR) and significantly shifts the threshold for CICR so that a higher level of trigger calcium is required to initiate CICR. The sphingosine inhibition of CICR is consistent with the near abolition of calcium dependent [3H]-ryanodine binding. HPLC analysis of cardiac sphingosine content indicates that sphingosine is present in the cardiac cell at moderately high levels (29.4 nmol/g wet wt for the entire cell and approximately 0.4 microM for the cytosol) which are sufficient to produce significant inhibition by sphingosine on calcium release and ryanodine binding. The data suggest that sphingosine acts on the cardiac ryanodine receptor by opposing the physiological stimulus (e.g. trigger calcium entering via the dihydropyridine receptor). We propose that sphingosine is produced by the T-tubule membranes and that sphingosine is released into the protected intracellular environment of the T-tubule/SR junction to negatively modulate calcium release. Consequently, it is possible that sphingosine is a physiologically relevant regulator of calcium levels in the heart.