The contractile effect of substance P, neurokinin A, receptor selective agonists for tachykinin receptors and NK2 tachykinin receptor antagonists was investigated in mucosa-free circular strips of the human isolated colon. Neurokinin A and substance P produced concentration-dependent contractions which approached 80-90% of the maximal response to carbachol. Neurokinin A was about 370 times more potent than substance P. The action of neurokinin A and substance P was not modified by peptidase inhibitors (bestatin, captopril and thiorphan, 1 microM each). The NK2 receptor selective agonist, [beta-Ala8]neurokinin A-(4-10) closely mimicked the response to neurokinin A while NK1 and NK3 receptor selective agonists were active only at microM concentrations. The pseudopeptide, MDL 28,564, which is one of the most selective NK2 ligands available, behaved as a full agonist. Responses to [beta-Ala8]neurokinin A were antagonized by NK2 receptor selective antagonists, with the rank order of potency MEN 10,376 greater than L 659,877 much greater than R 396. These data indicate that NK2 tachykinin receptors play a dominant role in determining the contraction of the circular muscle of the human colon to peptides of this family. The NK2 receptor subtype responsible for this effect belongs to the same subtype (NK2A) previously identified in the rabbit pulmonary artery and guinea-pig bronchi.