Direct measurements of phosphorylation of the Ca2+ ATPase of the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) have shown that the lifetime of the first phosphorylated intermediate in the Ca2+ transport cycle, E1 approximately P, increases with decreasing [Mg2+] (Dupont, Y. 1980. Eur. J. Biochem. 109:231-238). Previous x-ray diffraction work (Pascolini, D., and J.K. Blasie. 1988. Biophys. J. 54:669-678) under high [Mg2+] conditions (25 mM) indicated that changes in the profile structure of the SR membrane could be responsible for the low-temperature transient trapping of E1 approximately P that occurs at temperatures below 2-3 degrees C, the upper characteristic temperature th for lipid lateral phase separation in the membrane. We now present results of our study of the Ca2+ uptake kinetics and of the structure of the SR membrane at low [Mg2+] (less than or equal to 100 microM). Our results show a slowing in the kinetics of both phases of the Ca2+ uptake process and an increase in the duration of the plateau of the fast phase before the onset of the slow phase, indicating an increase in the lifetime (transient trapping) of E1 approximately P. Calcium uptake kinetics at low [Mg2+] and moderately low temperature (approximately 0 degree C) are similar to those observed at much lower temperatures (approximately -10 degrees C) at high [Mg2+]. The temperature-induced structural changes that we observed at low [Mg2+] are much more pronounced than those found to occur at higher [Mg2+]. Also, at the lower [Mg2+] the upper characteristic temperature th for lipid lateral phase separation was found to be higher, at approximately 8-10 degrees C. Our studies indicate that both temperature and [Mg2+] affect the structure and the functionality (as measured by changes in the kinetics of Ca2+ uptake) of the SR membrane. Membrane lipid phase behavior and changes in the Ca2+ ATPase profile structure seem to be related, and we have found that structural changes are responsible for the slowing of the kinetics of the fast phase of Ca2+ uptake, and could also mediate the effect that [Mg2+] has on E1 approximately P lifetime.