Heterotrimeric G proteins, composed of G alpha and G betagamma subunits, transmit signals from cell surface receptors to cellular effector enzymes and ion channels. The G alpha(o) protein is the most abundant G alpha subtype in the nervous system, but it is also found in the heart. Its function is not completely known, although it is required for regulation of N-type Ca2+ channels in GH3 cells and also interacts with GAP43, a major protein in growth cones, suggesting a role in neuronal pathfinding. To analyze the function of G alpha(o), we have generated mice lacking both isoforms of G alpha(o) by homologous recombination. Surprisingly, the nervous system is grossly intact, despite the fact that G alpha(o) makes up 0.2-0.5% of brain particulate protein and 10% of the growth cone membrane. The G alpha(o)-/- mice do suffer tremors and occasional seizures, but there is no obvious histologic abnormality in the nervous system. In contrast, G alpha(o)-/- mice have a clear and specific defect in ion channel regulation in the heart. Normal muscarinic regulation of L-type calcium channels in ventricular myocytes is absent in the mutant mice. The L-type calcium channel responds normally to isoproterenol, but there is no evident muscarinic inhibition. Muscarinic regulation of atrial K+ channels is normal, as is the electrocardiogram. The levels of other G alpha subunits (G alpha(s), G alpha(q), and G alpha(i)) are unchanged in the hearts of G alpha(o)-/- mice, but the amount of G betagamma is decreased. Whichever subunit, G alpha(o) or G betagamma, carries the signal forward, these studies show that muscarinic inhibition of L-type Ca2+ channels requires coupling of the muscarinic receptor to G alpha(o). Other cardiac G alpha subunits cannot substitute.