Neurokinin A (NKA) is a potent contractile agonist of human colon circular muscle. These responses are mediated predominantly through tachykinin NK2 receptors. In the present study, the NK2 receptor radioligand [125I]-NKA has been used to characterize binding sites in this tissue, using tachykinin agonists and antagonists. 125INKA labelled a single, high affinity binding site. Specific binding (95% of total binding) of [125I]-NKA was saturable (K(D) 0.47+/-0.05 nM), of high capacity (Bmax 2.1+/-0.1 fmol mg(-1) wet weight tissue) and reversible (kinetically derived K(D) 0.36+/-0.07 nM). The rank order of agonists competing for the [125I]-NKA binding site was neuropeptide gamma (NPgamma) > or = NKA > or = [Lys5, MeLeu9,Nle10]NKA (4-10) (NK2 agonist) >> substance P (SP) > neurokinin B (NKB) > or = [Pro9]SP (NK1 agonist) >> senktide (NK3 agonist), indicating binding to an NK2 site. The nonpeptide selective NK2 antagonist SR48968 showed higher affinity for the [125I]-NKA site than selective peptide NK2 antagonists. The rank order of potency for NK2 antagonists was SR48968 > or = MEN11420 > GR94800 > or = MEN10627 > MEN10376 > or = R396. The NK1 antagonist SR140333 was a weak competitor. The competition curve for SP could be resolved into two sites. When experiments were repeated in the presence of SR140333 (0.1 microM), the curve for SP became monophasic and showed a significant shift to the right, whereas curves to NKA and NKB were unaffected. In conclusion, binding of the radioligand [125I]-NKA to membranes from circular muscle is predominantly to the NK2 receptor. There may be a small component of binding to the NK1 receptor. The NK2 receptor mediates circular muscle contraction, whereas the role of the NK1 receptor in circular muscle is unclear.