The alpha-2 adrenergic receptors have been subdivided into two pharmacological subtypes known as alpha-2A and alpha-2B. The OK cell, a cell line derived from an opossum kidney, expresses an alpha-2 adrenergic receptor which has pharmacological characteristics different from both the alpha-2A and alpha-2B subtypes, and thus may be a third subtype. To test this hypothesis, we compared the affinities (Ki values from radioligand binding) of 49 drugs in the OK cell with their affinity for the alpha-2A (HT-29 cells) and alpha-2B (neonatal rat lung) adrenergic receptor subtypes. Eight drugs (spiroxarine, prazosin, WY 27127, L-657,743, ARC 239, akuammigine, rauwolscine and oxymetazoline) were identified whose Ki differed by 10-fold or more between the OK cells and HT29 cells. Five drugs (BAM 1303, raubasine, WB 4101, akuammigine and rauwolscine) differentiated, by at least 10-fold, between OK cells and neonatal rat lung. Correlations of pKi values between the OK cell and tissues or cell lines expressing either the alpha-2A or alpha-2B subtypes were poor, confirming that the OK cell receptor could not be classified as either alpha-2A or alpha-2B. In contradistinction, there was a good correlation between pKi values for the OK cell line and opossum kidney showing that they express the same subtype. In addition, ratios of subtype-selective drug Ki values were similar for the OK cell and opossum kidney, but different from other tissues or cell lines expressing either the alpha-2A or alpha-2B subtypes. We conclude that the OK cell line and opossum kidney express a novel subtype of alpha-2 adrenergic receptor which we term the alpha-2C subtype.