Trypsin-like serine proteinases trigger signal transduction pathways through proteolytic cleavage of proteinase-activated receptors (PARs) in many tissues. Three members, PAR-1, PAR-2 and PAR-4, are trypsin substrates, as trypsinolytic cleavage of the extracellular N terminus produces receptor activation. Here, the ability of the three human pancreatic trypsin isoforms (cationic trypsin, anionic trypsin and mesotrypsin (trypsin IV)) as recombinant proteins was tested on PARs. Using fura 2 [Ca(2+)](i) measurements, we analyzed three human epithelial cell lines, HBE (human bronchial epithelial), A549 (human pulmonary epithelial) and HEK (human embryonic kidney)-293 cells, which express functional PAR-1 and PAR-2. Human mesotrypsin failed to induce a PAR-mediated Ca(2+) response in human epithelial cells even at high concentrations. In addition, mesotrypsin did not affect the magnitude of PAR activation by subsequently added bovine trypsin. In HBE cells, which like A549 cells express high PAR-2 levels with negligible PAR-1 levels (<11%), half-maximal responses were seen for both cationic and anionic trypsins at about 5 nM. In the epithelial cells, mesotrypsin did not activate PAR-2 or PAR-1, whereas both anionic and cationic trypsins were comparable activators. We also investigated human astrocytoma 1321N1cells, which express PAR-1 and some PAR-3, but no PAR-2. High concentrations (>100 nM) of mesotrypsin produced a relatively weak Ca(2+) signal, apparently through PAR-1 activation. Half-maximal responses were observed at 60 nM mesotrypsin, and at 10-20 nM cationic and anionic trypsins. Using a desensitization assay with PAR-2-AP, we confirmed that both cationic and anionic trypsin isoforms cause [Ca(2+)](i) elevation in HBE cells mainly through PAR-2 activation. Desensitization of PAR-1 with thrombin receptor agonist peptide in 1321N1 cells demonstrated that all three recombinant trypsin isoforms act through PAR-1.Thus, the activity of human cationic and anionic trypsins on PARs was comparable to that of bovine pancreatic trypsin. Mesotrypsin (trypsin IV), in contrast to cationic and anionic trypsin, cannot activate or disable PARs in human epithelial cells, demonstrating that the receptors are no substrates for this isoenzyme. On the other hand, mesotrypsin activates PAR-1 in human astrocytoma cells. This might play a role in protection/degeneration or plasticity processes in the human brain.