The uptake and cytotoxicity of 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium (MPP+), the toxic metabolite of the parkinsonism inducing agent 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP), were studied in COS-7 cells transiently transfected with the cloned human noradrenaline and dopamine transporters and in permanently transfected SK-N-MC neuroblastoma cells. MPP+ had a 10- to 20-fold lower K(m) value for the noradrenaline than for the dopamine transporter. In dopamine transporter expressing cells, the maximal transport rate (Vmax) of MPP+, dopamine and noradrenaline was the same, but in noradrenaline transporter expressing cells the Vmax of MPP+ and dopamine was only one-half of the Vmax of noradrenaline. The turnover numbers (Vmax of uptake/maximal binding sites of binding) were 5 times higher for the dopamine transporter (as measured with [3H]dopamine and [3H]-2 beta-carbomethoxy-3 beta-(4-fluorophenyl) tropane than for the noradrenaline transporter (as measured with [3H]noradrenaline and [3H]nisoxetine). In SK-N-MC cells with similar Vmax values for both catecholamines, noradrenaline transporter expressing cells were killed by lower concentrations of MPP+ in the medium than dopamine transporter expressing cells. Desipramine blocked the toxicity of MPP+ toward the noradrenaline transporter, but not the dopamine transporter expressing cells. We conclude that the toxic effect of MPTP at the striatal dopamine system in the MPTP primate model of Parkinson's disease is not correlated with the affinity profile of MPP+ for catecholamine transporters, but rather with the higher turnover number of MPP+ at the dopamine transporter. In contradistinction, the toxicity of MPTP at the noradrenaline neurons in the primate cerebral cortex (Pifl et al., 1991) may involve the higher affinity of MPP+ for the noradrenaline transporter.