A total of 32 compounds was prepared to investigate the functional role of Phe(4) in NC(1-13)-NH(2), the minimal sequence maintaining the same activity as the natural peptide nociceptin. These compounds could be divided into three series in which Phe(4) was replaced with residues that would (i) alter aromaticity or side chain length, (ii) introduce steric constraint, and (iii) modify the phenyl ring. Compounds were tested for biological activity as (a) inhibitors of the electrically stimulated contraction of the mouse vas deferens; (b) competitors of the binding of [(3)H]-NC-NH(2) to mouse brain membranes; and (c) inhibitors of forskolin-stimulated cAMP accumulation in CHO cells expressing the recombinant human OP(4) receptor. Results indicate that all compounds of the first and second series were inactive or very weak with the exception of [N(CH(3))Phe(4)]NC(1-13)-NH(2), which was only 3-fold less potent than NC(1-13)-NH(2). Compounds of the third series showed higher, equal, or lower potencies than NC(1-13)-NH(2). In particular, [(pF)Phe(4)]NC(1-13)-NH(2) (pF) and [(pNO(2))Phe(4)]NC(1-13)-NH(2) (pNO(2)) were more active than NC(1-13)-NH(2) by a factor of 5. In the mVD, these compounds showed the following order of potency: (pF) = (pNO(2)) > or = (pCN) > (pCl) > (pBr) > (pI) = (pCF(3)) = (pOCH(3)) > (pCH(3)) > (pNH(2)) = (pOH). (oF) and especially (mF) maintained high potencies but were less active than (pF). Similar orders of potency were observed in binding competition and cAMP accumulation studies. There was a strong (r(2) > or = 0.66) correlation between data observed in these assays. Biological activity data of compounds of the third series were plotted against some Hansch parameters that are currently used to quantify physicochemical features of the substituents. In the three biological assays agonist potency/affinity positively correlates with the electron withdrawal properties of the groups in the p-position of Phe(4) and inversely with their size.