The role of inositol phospholipid (IP) hydrolysis in agonist-mediated contractility was examined in rat uterine smooth muscle by comparing carbachol-, oxytocin-, and PGF2αmediated [3H]IP accumulation and tension generation. In both estrogen- and progesterone-dominated uteri, all three agonists exhibited dose-dependent contractile responses. Agonist potencies (EC50 values) for eliciting [3H]IP accumulation or contractile responses were found to be very similar and did not change significantly between hormonal states. Maximal responses of agonist-mediated [3H]IP accumulation and tension generation were significantly affected by the endocrine state of the uterus and were dependent on the agonist examined. Maximal carbachol- and PGF2α-induced [3H]IP accumulation were found to be elevated in estrogen-dominated relative to progesterone-dominated uteri, whereas maximal forces generated by these two agonists were smaller in progesterone-dominated relative to estrogen-dominated tissues. Oxytocin-induced responses did not differ between hormonal states. To determine whether these differences between [3H]IP accumulation and contractility responses could be attributed to changes in receptor-mediated signal transduction mechanisms, receptor expression and coupling to phospholipase C were studied. Myometrial muscarinic and oxytocin receptors assessed by radioligand binding were found to have three- to four-fold greater capacities in estrogen-dominated than in progesterone-dominated uteri without significant changes in agonist affinities. Agonist-mediated [3H]IP accumulation was potently inhibited by both pertussis and cholera toxins in both hormonal states. These experiments show that estrogen- and progesterone-dominated environments regulate both uterine excitability and contractility and that the mechanisms of this regulation are complex and dependent on the agonist system stimulated.