Stretch-elicited intracellular calcium ([Ca(2+)](i)) changes in individual smooth muscle cells in a ring of aorta were measured simultaneously with the force developed by the ring. A phasic increase in [Ca(2+)](i) was observed in 30% of the cells and a sustained one in 10%. Depletion of intracellular calcium store by thapsigargin and caffeine decreased phasic and increased sustained calcium responses. The inhibition of calcium entry either by stretching the aorta in a calcium-free medium or by the inhibition of stretch-activated, non-selective cationic channels by 5 microM GsMtx-4 toxin, decreased the proportion of sustained [Ca(2+)](i) responses but increased transient responses. In this condition, a third of the cells responded to stretch by a bursts of [Ca(2+)](i) spikes. The decrease of calcium influx triggered the generation of burst of calcium spikes after the application of stretch steps to the vascular wall. We conclude that progressive recruitment of smooth muscle cells is the mechanism underlying the force-generating part of the myogenic response. Two types of stretch-elicited calcium responses were observed during the recruitment of the smooth muscle cells. One was a phasic calcium discharge generated by the sarcoplasmic reticulum. The second was a tonic response produced by the activation of the stretch-sensitive cationic channels allowing extracellular Ca(2+) entry.