In Novikoff hepatoma cell pairs studied by double perforated patch clamp (DPPC), brief (20 s) exposure to 20 microM arachidonic acid (AA) induced a rapid and reversible uncoupling. In pairs studied by double whole-cell clamp (DWCC), uncoupling was completely prevented by effective buffering of Cai2+ with BAPTA. Similarly, AA (20 s) had no effect on coupling in cells perfused with solutions containing no added Ca2+ (SES-no-Ca) and studied by DPPC, suggesting that Ca2+ influx plays an important role. Parallel experiments monitoring [Ca2+]i with fura-2 showed that [Ca2+]i increases with AA to 0.7–1.5 microM in normal [Ca2+]o, and to approximately 400 nM in SES-no-Ca solutions. The rate of [Ca2+]i increase matched that of Gj decrease, but [Ca2+]i recovery was faster. In cells studied by DWCC with 2 mM BAPTA in the pipette solution and superfused with SES-no-Ca, long exposure (1 min) to 20 microM AA caused a slow and virtually irreversible uncoupling. This result suggests that AA has a dual mechanism of uncoupling: one dominant, fast, reversible, and Ca(2+)-dependent, the other slow, poorly reversible, and Ca(2+)-independent. In contrast, uncoupling by oleic acid (OA) or halothane was insensitive to internal buffering with BAPTA, suggesting a Ca(2+)-independent mechanism only. © 1994, The Biophysical Society. All rights reserved.