The regulation of the increase in intracellular calcium ([Ca2+]i) occurring in cytolytic. T lymphocytes (CTLs) upon their interaction with antigen was examined. This [Ca2+]i increase and lytic function were insensitive to verapamil, a Ca channel blocker. An antigen-independent increase in [Ca2+]i was not induced by depolarization of CTLs with excess extracellular K+, suggesting that Ca2+ influx is not mediated by the ubiquitous voltage-gated Ca channel. The antigen-induced [Ca2+]i increase was inhibited by prior membrane hyperpolarization with valinomycin. Hyperpolarization occurred under normal circumstances in CTLs exposed to antigen-receptor-specific antibodies. This potential change was Ca2+-dependent and inhibited by K channel blockade. Conversely, K channel blockade augmented the antigen-specific [Ca2+]i increase while markedly decreasing the K+ efflux associated with CTL lytic function. Therefore, either membrane potential or intracellular K+ regulates the antigen-specific [Ca2+]i increase in CTLs.