Elucidation of the structure of the endogenous ligand(s) for imidazoline binding sites, clonidine-displacing substance (CDS), has been a major goal for many years. Crude CDS from bovine lung was purified by reverse-phase high-pressure liquid chromatography. Electrospray mass spectrometry (ESMS) and nuclear magnetic resonance ((1)H NMR) analysis revealed the presence of L-tryptophan and 1-carboxy-1-methyltetrahydro-beta-carboline in the active CDS extract. Competition radioligand binding studies, however, failed to show displacement of specific [(3)H]clonidine binding to rat brain membranes for either compound. Further purification of the bovine lung extract allowed the isolation of the beta-carbolines harmane and harmalan as confirmed by ESMS, (1)H NMR, and comparison with synthetic standards. Both compounds exhibited a high (nanomolar) affinity for both type 1 and type 2 imidazoline binding sites, and the synthetic standards were shown to coelute with the active classical CDS extracts. We therefore propose that the beta-carbolines harmane and harmalan represent active components of classical CDS. The identification of these compounds will allow us to establish clear physiological roles for CDS.