GABA-gated chloride channels were expressed in human embryonic kidney cells following transfection of cDNAs encoding the alpha 1, beta 2, and gamma 2 subunits of the rat GABAA receptor (GABAR). Functional properties were determined using patch-clamp techniques in the whole-cell and outside-out configurations. Large whole-cell currents were observed in cells expressing the alpha 1 beta 2, alpha 1 gamma 2, and alpha 1 beta 2 gamma 2 subunit combinations. The unique characteristics of GABAR channels consisting of these subunit combinations depended upon the presence or absence of beta 2 and gamma 3 subunits. GABA-activated currents in cells expressing GABARs with the beta 2 subunit desensitized faster and showed greater outward rectification, and the channels had a shorter mean open time than GABARs composed of alpha 1 gamma 2 subunits. When the gamma 2 subunit was present the resulting GABAR channels had a larger conductance. The slope of the concentration-response curve was significantly steeper for GABARs composed of alpha 1 beta 2 gamma 2 subunits compared with GABARs consisting of alpha 1 beta 2 or alpha 1 gamma 2 subunit combinations.