1. We transiently introduced the human GABA(A) receptor epsilon subunit cDNA into a human embryonic kidney (HEK) cell line stably expressing alpha1beta3gamma2 receptors (WSS-1 cells) to establish whether the subunit competes with the gamma2 subunit for assembly into receptors. GABA-evoked currents were recorded using the patch-clamp technique from cells transfected with cDNA encoding green fluorescent protein (GFP) alone or in combination with the epsilon subunit cDNA. 2. The epsilon subunit did not change the potency of GABA: the GABA EC(50) was 34 +/- 6 microM in control WSS-1 cells and 37 +/- 6 microM in cells expressing the epsilon subunit. The introduction of the epsilon subunit reduced the peak current amplitude activated by GABA (1 mM) from 1.8 +/- 0.2 nA in control cells to 0.9 +/- 0.2 nA in cells expressing the epsilon subunit (P < 0.05). 3. The epsilon subunit caused the appearance of leak currents recorded in the absence of GABA. Outside-out patches excised from epsilon subunit-containing WSS-1 cells exhibited spontaneously opening GABA(A) channels not seen in patches excised from control GFP-expressing WSS-1 cells. Introduction of the epsilon subunit did not alter the GABA-evoked single-channel cord conductance. 4. The anaesthetic 2,6-diisopropylphenol (propofol, 3 microM) and the benzodiazepine flunitrazepam (1 microM) potentiated GABA-evoked currents recorded from control cells labelled with GFP. The epsilon subunit reduced potentiation by both agents 48-96 h after transfection. 5. The introduction of the epsilon subunit had no effect on the ability of propofol (3-30 microM) relative to GABA (1 mM) to activate GABA(A) receptors in WSS-1 cells. High concentrations of propofol (> or = 100 microM) produced a more marked desensitization of GABA(A) receptor activity in WSS-1 cells transfected with cDNA for the epsilon subunit than in control cells. 6. There was no difference in the potency of Zn(2+) as an inhibitor of currents recorded from control cells (IC(50) = 165 +/- 34 microM) or cells expressing the epsilon subunit (IC(50) = 179 +/- 11 microM). 7. GABA-activated currents recorded both from control cells and cells expressing the epsilon subunit reversed in sign at the Cl- equilibrium potential and exhibited outward rectification. 8. The introduction of the epsilon subunit changes the functional properties of GABA(A) receptors in WSS-1 cells. The resulting receptors have a unique combination of properties indicative of the co-assembly of alpha, beta, gamma and epsilon subunits.