A conserved aspartic acid residue in the third transmembrane region of many of the G protein-coupled receptors has been shown to play a role in ligand binding. In the case of endothelin receptors, however, a lysine residue replaces this conserved aspartic acid residue. To access the importance of this residue in ligand binding, we have replaced it with an aspartic acid in the rat endothelin type B (ETb) receptor by PCR mediated mutagenesis. The binding characteristics and functional properties of both the wild type and mutant receptors were determined in COS-7 cells transiently expressing the cloned receptor cDNAs. Using 125I-ET-1 as the radioactive peptide ligand in displacement binding studies, the wild type receptor displayed a typical non-isopeptide-selective binding profile with similar IC50 values (0.2-0.6 nM) for all three endothelin peptides (ET-1, ET-2, and ET-3) and sarafotoxin 6c (SRTX 6c). Interestingly, the mutant receptor showed an increase in IC50 values for ET-1 (5 nM), ET-2 (27 nM), and ET-3 (127 nM) but displayed a much larger increase in IC50 value for SRTX 6c (> 10 uM). The lysine mutant receptor still elicited full inositol phosphate (IP) turnover responses in the presence of saturating concentrations of endothelins (10 nM of ET-1, 100 nM of ET-2, or 1 uM of ET-3), indicating that the mutation (K181D) did not affect the coupling of mutant receptor to the appropriate G protein. These results demonstrate that lysine-181 on the receptor is important for binding ET peptides; however, it is required for binding the ETb selective agonist-SRTX 6c.