The relative magnitudes and functional significance of Ca extrusion by Na-Ca exchange and by an Nao-independent mechanism were investigated in monolayer cultures of chick embryo ventricular cells. Abrupt exposure of cells in 0-Nao, nominally 0-Cao solution to 20 mM caffeine produced a large contracture (3.94 +/- 0.90 micron of cell shortening) that relaxed with a t1/2 of 8.60 +/- 1.22 s. An abrupt exposure to caffeine plus 140 mM Na resulted in a contracture that was smaller in amplitude (1.53 +/- 0.50 micron) and relaxed much more rapidly (t1/2 = 0.77 +/- 0.09 s). An abrupt exposure to caffeine in 0-Nao solutions produced an increase in 45Ca efflux that persisted for 20 s, and a net loss of Ca content, determined by atomic absorption spectroscopy (AAS), of approximately 4 nmol/mg protein, within 35 s. A comparable net loss of Ca was demonstrated in the presence of 100 microM [Ca]o. The abrupt exposure of cultured cells to 0 Nao in 1.8 mM Ca produced a Ca uptake, estimated with 45Ca, of 3.2 nmol/mg protein X 15 s, but produced no increase in cell Ca content (AAS). In cells in which a 30% increase in Nai was produced by 5 min exposure to 10(-6) M ouabain, the abrupt exposure to 0 Nao produced a Ca uptake of 6 nmol/mg protein X 15 s and an increase in Ca content (AAS) of 4 nmol/mg protein. We conclude that there is an Nao-independent mechanism for Ca extrusion in these cells, presumably a Ca-ATPase Ca pump, with a limited Ca transport capacity of no more than 2 nmol/mg protein X 15 s. This is five times smaller than the demonstrated maximum capacity of the Na-Ca exchanger in these cells. The relaxation of twitch tension in these cells seems to be dependent primarily on sarcoplasmic reticulum uptake of Ca, with a secondary role provided by the Na-Ca exchanger. The Ca pump appears to contribute little to beat-to-beat relaxation.

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