The dihydropyridine (DHP) receptor of normal skeletal muscle is hypothesized to function as the voltage sensor for excitation-contraction (E-C) coupling, and also as the calcium channel underlying a slowly activating, DHP-sensitive current (termed ICa-s). Skeletal muscle from mice with muscular dysgenesis lacks both E-C coupling and ICa-s. However, dysgenic skeletal muscle does express a small DHP-sensitive calcium current (termed ICa-dvs) which is kinetically and pharmacologically distinct from ICa-s. We have examined the ability of ICa-dys, or the DHP receptor underlying it, to couple depolarization and contraction. Under most conditions ICa-dys is small (approximately 1 pA/pF) and dysgenic myotubes do not contract in response to sarcolemmal depolarization. However, in the combined presence of the DHP agonist Bay K 8644 (1 microM) and elevated external calcium (10 mM), ICa-dys is strongly potentiated and some dysgenic myotubes contract in response to direct electrical stimulation. These contractions are blocked by removing external calcium, by adding 0.5 mM cadmium to the bath, or by replacing Bay K 8644 with the DHP antagonist (+)-PN 200-110. Only myotubes having a density of ICa-dys greater than approximately 4 pA/pF produce detectible contractions, and the strength of contraction is positively correlated with the density of ICa-dys. Thus, unlike the contractions of normal myotubes, the contractions of dysgenic myotubes require calcium entry. These results demonstrate that the DHP receptor underlying ICa-dys is unable to function as a "voltage sensor" that directly couples membrane depolarization to calcium release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum.

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