Agonist stimulation causes the endocytosis of many G protein-coupled receptors, including muscarinic acetylcholine receptors. In this study we have investigated the agonist-triggered trafficking of the M3 muscarinic receptor expressed in SH-SY5Y human neuroblastoma cells. We have compared the ability of a series of agonists to generate the second messenger Ins(1,4,5)P3 with their ability to stimulate receptor endocytosis. We show that there is a good correlation between the intrinsic activity of the agonists and their ability to increase the rate constant for receptor endocytosis. Furthermore, on the basis of our results, we predict that even very weak partial agonists should under some circumstances be able to cause substantial receptor internalization. Receptor endocytosis occurs too slowly to account for the rapid desensitization of the Ca2+ response to carbachol. Instead, receptor endocytosis and recycling appear to play an important role in resensitization. After an initial agonist challenge, the response to carbachol is fully recovered when only about half of the receptors have been recycled to the cell surface, suggesting that there is a receptor reserve of about 50%. Removal of this reserve by receptor alkylation significantly reduces the extent of resensitization. Resensitization is also reduced by inhibitors of either endocytosis alone (concanavalin A) or of endocytosis and recycling (nigericin). Finally, the protein phosphatase inhibitor calyculin A also reduces resensitization, possibly by blocking the dephosphorylation of the receptors in an endosomal compartment.