Sarcolemmal vesicles were purified to a similar extent, 50- to 60-fold on a protein basis, from normal rat hearts and hearts subjected to 30 or 60 min of autolysis at 37°C (total ischemia in vitro). Electron microscopic examination of the autolytic hearts revealed sarcolemmal discontinuities and other morphological characteristics typical of irreversible cell injury. Total contents and percentage composition of phospholipid classes did not differ between normal and autolytic hearts or between sarcolemmal preparations from these hearts. There was no increase in lysophospholipid contents of whole hearts or of purified sarcolemma after autolysis. Long chain acyl-CoAs or acylcarnitines did not accumulate in autolytic hearts under our experimental conditions. The molar long chain acyl-CoA: phospholipid ratio in isolated sarcolemma was extremely low (1:100 000). It increased 3-fold after autolysis but the increase was most probably the result of an increase in mitochondrial contamination of the sarcolemmal preparations from autolytic hearts. The molar long chain acylcarnitine: phospholipid ratio of isolated sarcolemma was much larger (1:100), but it did not change after autolysis. Experiments, in which radioactive amphiphiles were incorporated in isolated sarcolemma that was subsequently repeatedly washed, indicated that the lysophospholipid and acylcarnitine contents of isolated sarcolemma reflect the contents of sarcolemma in situ, but that sarcolemmal acyl-CoA is used for re-acylation reactions during purification, explaining the low acyl-CoA content of isolated sarcolemma. Na/K-ATPase and Na/Ca-exchange activities were markedly depressed in isolated sarcolemma from autolytic hearts. Our results suggest that sarcolemmal phospholipid breakdown and sarcolemmal amphiphile accumulation are not responsible for the structural and functional defects of the sarcolemma after autolysis.