To cast light on the subunit composition of native NMDA-type glutamate receptors, four cloned subunits of the NMDA receptor have been expressed, in pairs, in Xenopus oocytes, and their single-channel properties have been measured. The conductances of the channels, and their characteristic patterns of sublevel transitions, turn out to be useful diagnostic criteria for subunit composition. The NR1-NR2A and NR1-NR2B combinations (which have identical TM2 sequences) are very similar to each other. Both have 50 pS openings and brief 40 pS sublevels (in 1 mM external Ca2+), with similar mean lifetimes and frequencies. They also show close quantitative resemblance to the channels of hippocampal CA1 and dentate gyrus cells and of cerebellar granule cells, except that the NR1-NR2A combination has a lower glycine sensitivity than the native channels. In contrast, the NR1-NR2C combination produces a channel with 36 pS and 19 pS conductances of similar (brief) duration; these closely resemble the 38-18 pS channels that have previously been observed in large cerebellar neurons in culture (together with 50 pS channels).