Although the actin-binding and actomyosin adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) inhibitory properties of calponin are well documented in vitro, its function in the smooth muscle cell has not been elucidated. To address this question, we utilized the ferret aortic smooth muscle cell, which shows a protein kinase C-dependent contraction even at pCa (-log [Ca2+]) 9.0 in the absence of a change in myosin light chain phosphorylation. Force was recorded from single, briefly permeabilized cells stimulated via a Ca(2+)-independent pathway by either phenylephrine or the epsilon isoenzyme of protein kinase C. Treatment of stimulated cells with wild-type recombinant calponin reduced steady-state contractile force by 45-60%. When calponin application preceded protein kinase C epsilon treatment, contraction was completely suppressed. On the other hand, calponin phosphorylated at Ser175 or mutant calponin with a Ser175 ⇢ Ala replacement had no effect on contractile force. A peptide corresponding to Leu166-Gly194 of calponin, which included an actin-binding domain but excluded the actomyosin ATPase inhibitory region, was synthesized. Treatment of aortic smooth muscle cells with this peptide triggered a concentration-dependent contraction, presumably by alleviating the inhibitory effect of endogenous calponin. A control peptide with a scrambled sequence of the same residues produced no detectable contractile response. Although other interpretations are possible, these results are consistent with the view that calponin participates in thin filament-mediated regulation of smooth muscle contraction and that it may be part of a Ca(2+)-independent pathway downstream of protein kinase C epsilon.