Many anxiolytics, anticonvulsants and general anesthetics modulate gamma-aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptors. The anxiolytic benzodiazepines potentiate the actions of GABA, and this only at GABAA receptors with gamma subunits. The general anesthetics both potentiate GABA and activate GABAA receptors directly, but their binding sites on the receptor are poorly defined. We examined whether the gamma 2 subunit was required for the modulation of GABAA receptors by the general anesthetic 2,6-diisopropylphenol (propofol). Using the patch-clamp technique, we recorded membrane currents from HEK293 cells transfected with human alpha 2, beta 1 and gamma 2 cDNAs and with alpha 2 and beta 1 cDNAs alone. Both forms of the receptor were activated by GABA and by propofol at low concentrations. At maximal doses, propofol was considerably less effective than GABA as an activator of alpha 2 beta 1 GABAA receptors, but it had an efficacy similar to that of GABA as an activator of alpha 2 beta 1 gamma 2s receptors. In addition to activating currents directly, propofol potentiated currents elicited by GABA recorded from cells expressing either subunit combination. We conclude that the gamma 2 subunit is not a prerequisite for activation of GABAA receptors by propofol or for its potentiation of GABA-activated currents. However, the subunit may contribute to the efficacy of propofol as a GABAA receptor activator.