As predicted from stretch-induced changes of rate and rhythm in the heart, acutely isolated embryonic chick heart cells exhibit whole-cell mechanosensitive currents. These currents were evoked by pressing on cells with a fire polished micropipette and measured through a perforated patch using a second pipette. The currents were carried by Na+ and K+ but not Cl-, and were independent of external Ca2+. The currents had linear I/V curves reversing at -16 mV and were completely blocked by Gd3+ >/= 30 microM and Grammostola spatulata venom at a dilution of 1:1000. Approximately 20% of cells showed time dependent inactivation. In contrast to direct mechanical stimulation, hypotonic volume stress produced an increase in conductance for anions rather than cations-the two stimuli are not equivalent. The cells had two types of stretch-activated ion channels (SACs): a 21 pS nonspecific cation-selective reversing at -2 mV and a 90 pS K+ selective reversing at -70 mV in normal saline. The activity of SACs was strongly correlated with the presence of whole-cell currents. Both the whole-cell currents and SACs were blocked by Gd3+ and by Grammostola spatulata spider venom. Mechanical stimulation of spontaneously active cells increased the beating rate and this effect was blocked by Gd3+. We conclude that physiologically active mechanosensitive currents arise from stretch activated ion channels.