Isolated rat tracheal smooth muscle became considerably less sensitive to the relaxing action of isoproterenol after being incubated with 5 x 10(-6) M isoproterenol for 30 minutes. Pretreatment of the tissue with propranolol, but not with methylprednisolone, clearly reduced the isoproterenol-induced desensitization. This suggested that propranolol by occupying the beta adrenergic receptor prevented isoproterenol from binding to this receptor, thereby preventing the isoproterenol-induced desensitization. Furthermore, an isoproterenol-desensitized tracheal preparation exhibited a diminished sensitivity to other beta agonists, but not to the spasmolytic actions of D600, hydralazine, sodium nitrite and aminophylline. These results suggested that the beta receptor is specifically involved in the desensitization induced by isoproterenol. A highly desensitized tissue could always be made to undergo complete relaxation by exposing it to sufficiently high concentrations of isoproterenol. Thus, there appeared to be no positive indication of a very large change in the apparent intrinsic activity of the isoproterenol in the desensitized tissue. However, the dissociation constant for the propranolol-beta receptor complex in the desensitized tissue was shown to be 180-fold larger than that in the normal tissue. These findings provide strong evidence that one demonstrable cellular change that occurs in the desensitized tissue is a pronounced reduction in the affinity of the beta receptors for isoproterenol.