Endothelin (ET) receptor in human astrocytoma U373MG cells was characterized. ET-1, ET-3, sarafotoxin S6C, IRL1620, BQ788, Ro46-2005 and PD142893 inhibited specific [125I]ET-1 binding with Ki values of 0.03 0.06, 0.74, 5.01, 4.45, 2275 and 157 nM, respectively. ETA selective antagonists BQ123 and FR139317 at 1 microM did not block [125I]ET-1 binding. Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction confirmed the results from competition studies that U373 cells expressed predominantly ETB receptor. The Bmax and KD values of [125I]ET-1 binding were 0.15 pmol/1 x 10(6) cells and 0.23 nM. The molecular mass for the receptor was 45 kDa. ET-1 binding did not stimulate Ca+2 mobilization, phosphatidylinositol hydrolysis or arachidonic acid release, nor did it affect the intracellular cAMP or cGMP level. Interestingly, a majority of ET (> 80%) bound to the receptor was rapidly internalized, consistent with emerging evidence that a major function of ETB receptor is to clear ET. [125I]ET-1 binding was time-dependent and bound [125I]ET-1 was difficult to dissociate. In contrast, bound antagonists were much easier to dissociate. The results suggest that agonists and antagonists of the ET receptor exhibited different dissociation characteristics, with antagonist binding more reversible than agonist binding.