1. The signalling pathway underlying histamine activation of non-selective cation channels was investigated in single equine tracheal myocytes. Application of histamine (100 microM) activated the transient calcium-activated chloride current (ICl(Ca)) and sustained, low amplitude non-selective cation current (ICat). The H1 receptor antagonist pyrilamine (10 microM) blocked activation of ICl(Ca) and ICat. Simultaneous application of histamine (100 microM) and caffeine (8 mM) during H1 receptor blockade activated ICl(Ca), but not ICat. Neither the H2 receptor antagonist cimetidine (20 microM) nor the H3 receptor antagonist thioperamide (20 microM) prevented activation of ICl(Ca) and ICat. 2. Intracellular dialysis of anti-Galphai/Galphao antibodies completely blocked activation of ICat by histamine, whereas ICl(Ca) was not affected. By contrast, anti-Galphaq/Galpha11 antibodies greatly inhibited ICl(Ca), but did not alter activation of ICat. 3. 1-Oleoyl-2-acetyl-sn-glycerol (OAG, 20-100 microM) did not induce any current or affect currents activated by histamine or methacholine (mACH). Simultaneous application of OAG and caffeine activated ICl(Ca), but not ICat, indicating that a rise in [Ca2+]i and stimulation of diacylglycerol-sensitive protein kinase C (PKC) is not sufficient to activate ICat. The phospholipase C inhibitor U73122 (2 microM) blocked histamine activation of ICl(Ca) and ICat, but simultaneous exposure of myocytes to histamine and caffeine restored both ICl(Ca) and ICat in the presence of U73122. 4. Histamine and mACH activated currents with equivalent I-V relationships. The currents activated by these agonists were not additive; following activation of ICat by mACH, histamine failed to induce an additional membrane current. Similarly, mACH did not induce an additional current after full activation of ICat by histamine. 5. We conclude that H1 histamine receptors activate ICat through coupling to Gi/Go proteins. Activation of ICat also requires intracellular calcium release, mediated by H1 receptors coupling to Gq/G11 proteins. This coupling is analogous to the activation of ICat by co-stimulation of M2 and M3 receptors.