To explain the distinctive pharmacological profiles observed for adrenergic stimulation of cell proliferation (beta1) and cell differentiation (beta3), the adrenergic control of cAMP accumulation was investigated during brown adipocyte development. In preadipocytes, norepinephrine (NE) increased cAMP levels but the beta3-agonists BRL-37344 and CGP-12177 did not; in contrast, when the cells had differentiated into mature brown adipocytes, a large cAMP response to the beta3-agonists had emerged and was now double that to NE (although the affinity of NE had increased 10-fold). Beta1-messenger RNA (mRNA) levels were high in both pre- and mature brown adipocytes; beta3-mRNA did not appear until maturation but then abruptly. Although beta1-receptors remained detectable by [3H]CGP-12177 binding in the mature brown adipocytes, the cAMP response to NE (based on propranolol inhibitory potency) switched from beta1 to beta3. Even the established beta1-agonist dobutamine acted through beta3-receptors in the mature brown adipocytes. The increases in cAMP levels could adequately explain the increased cell proliferation in NE-stimulated preadipocytes and the NE-induced UCP1 gene expression in mature brown adipocytes. The distinctive adrenergic profiles for stimulation of proliferation and of differentiation were thus not due to the existence of additional pathways but to a switch in the type of beta-receptor mediating the NE response, coordinated with an alteration in the nuclear response to increased cAMP levels. The study implies that full recruitment of brown adipose tissue cannot be induced by exclusive beta3-stimulation.