It has been proposed that opioid agonist efficacy may play a role in tolerance and the regulation of opioid receptor density. To address this issue, the present studies estimated the in vivo efficacy of three opioid agonists and then examined changes in spinal mu-opioid receptor density following chronic treatment in the mouse. In addition, tolerance and regulation of the trafficking protein dynamin-2 were determined. To evaluate efficacy, the method of irreversible receptor alkylation was employed and the efficacy parameter tau estimated. Mice were injected with the irreversible mu-opioid receptor antagonist clocinnamox (0.32-25.6 mg/kg, i.p), and 24 h later, the analgesic potency of s.c. morphine, oxycodone and etorphine were determined. Clocinnamox dose-dependently antagonized the analgesic effects of morphine, etorphine and oxycodone. The shift to the right of the dose-response curves was greater for morphine and oxycodone compared to etorphine and the highest dose of clocinnamox reduced the maximal effect of morphine and oxycodone, but not etorphine. The order of efficacy calculated from these results was etorphine>morphine>oxycodone. Other mice were infused for 7 days with oxycodone (10-150 mg/kg/day, s.c.) or etorphine (50-250 microg/kg/day, s.c.) and the analgesic potency of s.c. morphine determined. The low efficacy agonist (oxycodone) produced more tolerance than the high efficacy agonist (etorphine) at equi-effective infusion doses. In saturation binding experiments, the low efficacy opioid agonists (morphine, oxycodone) did not regulate the density of spinal mu-opioid receptors, while etorphine produced approximately 40% reduction in mu-opioid receptor density. Furthermore, etorphine increased spinal dynamin-2 abundance, while oxycodone did not produce any significant change in dynamin-2 abundance. Overall, these data indicate that high efficacy agonists produce less tolerance at equi-effective doses. Furthermore, increased efficacy was associated with mu-opioid receptor downregulation and dynamin-2 upregulation. Conversely, lower efficacy agonists produced more tolerance at equi-effective doses, but did not regulate mu-opioid receptor density or dynamin-2 abundance. Taken together, these studies indicate that agonist efficacy plays an important role in tolerance and regulation of receptors and trafficking proteins.