Serosal addition of muscarinic agonists elicited rapid changes in electrical parameters across the isolated canine esophageal epithelium set up in vitro. Both carbachol and the M1-selective agonist, McNeil A343 (McN), increased transmucosal potential differences (PDs), decreased transmucosal resistances (R), and increased short-circuit currents (Isc). Carbachol was more potent and more effective than McN. Muscarinic antagonists were used to define the muscarinic receptor involved. The pA2 values obtained with Schild plots were as follows: atropine 9.14, 4-DAMP 8.98, AFDX-116 6.71, and pirenzepine 7.12. Low concentrations of pirenzepine (10(-8) M), produced a rightward shift in the dose-response curve to McN, without inhibiting responses to carbachol. Thus the receptor subtype is clearly not an M2. As in other glandular systems, M3 receptors are present. Whether M1 receptors also exist requires better definition of receptor densities-reserves in this tissue. Carbachol induced net secretion of Na and Cl and converted a predominantly absorptive tissue to a secretory one.