The properties of the gating currents (nonlinear charge movements) of human cardiac L-type Ca2- channels and their relationship to the activation of the Ca2+ channel (ionic) currents were studied using a mammalian expression system. Cloned human cardiac alpha1 + rabbit alpha 2 subunits or human cardiac alpha 1 + rabbit alpha 2 + human beta 3 subunits were transiently expressed in HEK293 cells. The maximum Ca2+ current density increased from -3.9 +/- 0.9 pA/pF for the alpha 1 + alpha 2 subunits to -11.6 +/- 2.2 pA/pF for alpha 1 + alpha 2 + beta 3 subunits. Calcium channel gating currents were recorded after the addition of 5 mM Co2+, using a -P/5 protocol. The maximum nonlinear charge movement (Qmax) increased from 2.5 +/- 0.3 nC/muF for alpha 1 + alpha 2 subunit to 12.1 +/- 0.3 nC/muF for alpha 1 + alpha 2 + beta 3 subunit expression. The QON was equal to the QOFF for both subunit combinations. The QON-Vm data were fit by a sum of two Boltzmann expressions and ranged over more negative potentials, as compared with the voltage dependence for activation of the Ca2+ conductance. We conclude that 1) the beta subunit increases the number of functional alpha 1 subunits expressed in the plasma membrane of these cells and 2) the voltage-dependent activation of the human cardiac L-type calcium channel involves the movements of at least two nonidentical and functionally distinct gating structures.