To investigate the physical mechanism by which melittin inhibits Ca-adenosine triphosphatase (ATPase) activity in sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) membranes, we have used electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy to probe the effect of melittin on lipid-protein interactions in SR. Previous studies have shown that melittin substantially restricts the rotational mobility of the Ca-ATPase but only slightly decreases the average lipid hydrocarbon chain fluidity in SR. Therefore, in the present study, we ask whether melittin has a preferential effect on Ca-ATPase boundary lipids, i.e., the annular shell of motionally restricted lipid that surrounds the protein. Paramagnetic derivatives of stearic acid and phosphatidylcholine, spin-labeled at C-14, were incorporated into SR membranes. The electronic paramagnetic resonance spectra of these probes contained two components, corresponding to motionally restricted and motionally fluid lipids, that were analyzed by spectral subtraction. The addition of increasing amounts of melittin, to the level of 10 mol melittin/mol Ca-ATPase, progressively increased the fraction of restricted lipids and increased the hyperfine splitting of both components in the composite spectra, indicating that melittin decreases the hydrocarbon chain rotational mobility for both the fluid and restricted populations of lipids. No further effects were observed above a level of 10 mol melittin/mol Ca-ATPase. In the spectra from control and melittin-containing samples, the fraction of restricted lipids decreased significantly with increasing temperature. The effect of melittin was similar to that of decreased temperature, i.e., each spectrum obtained in the presence of melittin (10:1) was nearly identical to the spectrum obtained without melittin at a temperature approximately 5 degrees C lower. The results suggest that the principal effect of melittin on SR membranes is to induce protein aggregation and this in turn, augmented by direct binding of melittin to the lipid, is responsible for the observed decreases in lipid mobility. Protein aggregation is concluded to be the main cause of inactivation of the Ca-ATPase by melittin, with possible modulation also by the decrease in mobility of the boundary layer lipids.