The beta-blocker (-)-pindolol produces intrinsic sympathomimetic activity manifested clinically by cardiostimulation, but the beta-adrenoceptor subtype, which mediates these effects, is unknown. Recent work indicates the existence of a (-)-propranolol-resistant site of the cardiac beta(1)-adrenoceptor and we propose that it mediates the cardiostimulation evoked by (-)-pindolol. We compared the interaction of (-)-pindolol both with human atrial myocardium and with recombinant beta(1)-adrenoceptors. The effects of (-)-pindolol on paced human atrial trabeculae were studied in the presence of 3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine (IBMX; 20 microM). (-)-Pindolol caused small negative and positive inotropic effects at nanomolar and micromolar concentrations respectively, which were unaffected by N(G)-monomethyl-L-arginine (L-NMMA, 10 microM), inconsistent with an involvement of nitric oxide. (-)-Pindolol, in the presence of (-)-propranolol, increased atrial contractile force and cAMP through recombinant beta(1)-adrenoceptors with identical potency (-logEC(50)M=6.5). The positive inotropic effects of (-)-pindolol were resistant to blockade by L-748,337 (100 nM), a beta(3)-adrenoceptor antagonist. (-)-CGP12177, known to act through the (-)-propranolol-resistant site of the beta(1)-adrenoceptor, also increased with similar potency atrial contractile force (-logEC(50)M=7.6) and cAMP at recombinant beta(1)-adrenoceptors (-logEC(50)M=7.7). (-)-Pindolol blocked the effects of (-)-CGP12177 in human atrium and recombinant beta(1)-adrenoceptors with similar equilibrium dissociation constants (pK(B)=6.5 and 6.3). Thus, stimulant potency and blocking potency of (-)-pindolol against (-)-CGP12177 agree. In contrast, (-)-pindolol was 200-400 times more effective at blocking the effects of a catecholamine than the effects of (-)-CGP12177 in both human atrium (pK(B)=9.1) and at recombinant beta(1)-adrenoceptors (pK(B)=8.6). We conclude that the cardiostimulant effects of (-)-pindolol in human atrial myocardium are mediated through a (-)-propranolol-resistant site of the beta(1)-adrenoceptor with low affinity for (-)-pindolol. In contrast, (-)-pindolol blocks the effects of catecholamines through a high-affinity site of the beta(1)-adrenoceptor. beta(3)-Adrenoceptors are not involved in the atrial effects of (-)-pindolol.