We applied the Cytosensor Microphysiometry system to study the three human alpha(2)-adrenoceptor subtypes, alpha(2A), alpha(2B) and alpha(2C), expressed in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells, and assessed its potential in the quantitative monitoring of agonist activity. The natural full agonist, (-)-noradrenaline, was used to define agonist efficacy. The imidazole derivative dexmedetomidine was a potent full agonist of all three receptor subtypes. The imidazolines clonidine and UK 14,304 (5-bromo-N-(4, 5-dihydro-1H-imidazol-2-yl)-6-quinoxalinamine) appeared to be partial agonists at alpha(2B)-adrenoceptors (E(max) approximately 60% of (-)-noradrenaline) but full agonists at alpha(2A)- and alpha(2C)-adrenoceptors. The responses mediated by all three alpha(2)-adrenoceptor subtypes were partly inhibited by the sodium-hydrogen (Na(+)/H(+)) exchange inhibitor, MIA (5-(N-methyl-N-isobutyl)-amiloride). The agonist responses were totally abolished by pretreatment with pertussis toxin in cells with alpha(2A)- and alpha(2C)-adrenoceptors, and partly abolished in cells with alpha(2B)-adrenoceptors. The residual signal in alpha(2B)-cells was sensitive to the intracellular Ca(2+)chelator, BAPTA (1,2-bis(2-aminophenoxy)ethane-N,N,N,N-tetraacetic acid acetoxymethyl ester). Cholera toxin (which acts on G(s)-proteins) had no effect on the agonist responses. The results suggest that the extracellular acidification responses mediated by all three human alpha(2)-adrenoceptor subtypes are dependent on Na(+)/H(+)exchange and G(i/o) pathways, and that alpha(2B)-adrenoceptors are capable of coupling to another, G(i/o)-independent and Ca(2+)-dependent signaling pathway.