During superfusion of permeabilized hepatocytes, submaximal concentrations of inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphate (InsP3) evoked quantal Ca2+ mobilization: a rapid acceleration in the rate of 45Ca2+ release abruptly followed by a biphasic decline to the basal rate before the InsP3-sensitive stores had fully emptied. During the fast component of the decay, the Ca2+ permeability of the stores fell rapidly by 40% (t(1/2) = 250 ms) to a state indistinguishable from that evoked by preincubation with InsP3 under conditions that prevented Ca2+ mobilization. This change was accompanied by a decrease in the InsP3 dissociation rate: the response declined more quickly when InsP3 was removed during the initial stages of a response than later. We suggest that InsP3 directly causes its receptor to rapidly switch (t(1/2) = 250 ms) between a low-affinity (K(d) ~ 1 μM) active, and a higher-affinity (K(d) ~ 100 nM) less active, conformation, and that this transition underlies the fast component of the decaying phase of Ca2+ release. Ca2+ continues to leak through the unchanging less active state of the receptor until those stores that responded initially are completely empty, accounting for the slow phase of the response. The requirements for activation of InsP3 receptors are more stringent (InsP3 and then Ca2+ binding) than those for partial inactivation (InsP3 binding); rapid inactivation is therefore likely to determine whether the cytosolic [Ca2+] reaches the threshold for regenerative Ca2+ signals.