The effect of fatty acids and L-carnitine on Ca2+ retention in rat liver mitochondria have been studied. Ca(2+)-retention was estimated as a sum of consecutive Ca2+ additions which leaded to transient stimulation of respiration coupled with influx of Ca2+ L-carnitine increases the Ca(2+)-retention; such an effect requires ATP. The Ca(2+)-retention was increased in the presence of 50 microM ATP or ADP. In all cases carboxyatractylate prevented the increase in Ca(2+)-retention. Palmitate and FCCP added at concentrations producing similar stimulating effect on respiration inhibit Ca(2+)-retention to about the same degree. The effect of palmitate is strongly diminished by L-carnitine. Again, the L-carnitine effect requires ATP. The data obtained suggest that the protonophoric effect of fatty acid plays a crucial role in Ca(2+)-dependent damage of mitochondria.