In C6 glioma cells stably expressing a homogeneous population of the cloned rat mu opioid receptor, the binding affinities of opioid agonists and subsequent activation of G protein were examined. Opioid receptor number in membranes of these cells was high (10-30 pmol/mg protein [3H]diprenorphine binding sites). Opioids were found to bind to the receptor with high affinity [Tyr-D-Ala-Gly-(Me)Phe-Gly-ol (DAMGO) 0.23 nM; sufentanil 0.034 nM; morphine 0.16 nM]. Activation of G protein by opioid agonists was examined by measuring the stimulation of guanosine-5'-O-(3-[35S]thio)triphosphate ([35S]GTP gamma S) binding. Sufentanil increased [35S]GTP gamma S binding by 326% with an EC50 value of 2.39 nM. Agonist stimulation of [35S]GTP gamma S binding was stereoselective, naltrexone-reversible, and pertussis toxin-sensitive. The "intrinsic activity" of opioids at the mu receptor was reflected by the magnitude of agonist-mediated activation of G protein. The rank order of the stimulation of [35S]GTP gamma S binding was etonitazene = sufentanil = DAMGO = PLO17 = fentanyl > morphine > profadol > meperidine > butorphanol = nalbuphine = pentazocine > cyclazocine = nalorphine > levallorphan > naltrexone. High affinity binding of ligands to the mu opioid receptor was reduced by the addition of sodium and guanosine diphosphate at concentrations used in the [35S]GTP gamma S binding assay. Ligand affinity was reduced in a manner correlating with "intrinsic activity". DAMGO, 1229-fold, nalbuphine 35-fold, naltrexone, 3-fold. The results presented show that the stable expression of the rat mu opioid receptor in C6 cells provides an effective tool to examine opioid receptor signal transduction mechanisms and evaluate the activity of novel opioids at the mu receptor.