The effects of hypotonic solutions on intracellular Ca2+ were determined on primary cultures of human detrusor smooth muscle cells. In the presence of external Ca2+, changing from a solution containing 290 mosmol l-1 to one containing 240 mosmol l-1 (80% normal tonicity) activated a rise in intracellular Ca2+. If the exposure to 240 mosmol l-1 was followed by exposure to 150 mosmol l-1 (50% normal tonicity) a further increase in Ca2+ was noted. Exposure to hypotonic solutions which contained nominally zero Ca2+ also resulted in a rise in intracellular Ca2+, suggesting that mechanical perturbation of the surface membrane can mobilize Ca2+ directly from intracellular stores. Stimulation of cells with a brief exposure to agonist (histamine, 5 microM) in the nominal absence of external Ca2+ produced a release of Ca2+ from intracellular stores. Under these conditions the response to a subsequent hypotonic stimulation was small or absent. These observations suggest that hypotonic stress induces a mobilization of Ca2+ from the same store as that activated by agonist. Detailed analysis of data from individual bladders revealed that there were significant differences between cells cultured from normal bladders and those from bladders with detrusor instability. On exposure to 240 mosmol l-1 cells from unstable bladders gave larger responses than cells from normal bladders. However, exposure of cells from unstable bladders to a subsequent stimulus of 150 mosmol l-1 resulted in a smaller rise in Ca2+ than was observed with normal cells. Overall, these data suggest that isolated detrusor smooth muscle cells are sensitive to membrane stretch by hyposmotic solutions and that the mechanisms involved include the direct mobilization of intracellular Ca2+. The data also suggest that there may be differences in the responsiveness of cells isolated from stable and unstable bladders.