Angiotensin II (Ang II) receptor binding was localized in rat adrenal gland, kidney, and brain by in vitro autoradiography using the antagonist analogue 125I-[Sar1, Ile8]Ang II and differentiated into type I (AT-1) and type II (AT-2) subtypes using unlabelled non-peptide antagonists specific for Ang II subtypes. AT-1 binding was determined as that remaining in the presence of an excess of the AT-2 antagonist, PD 123177 (10 microM), and AT-2 binding as that remaining in the presence of an excess of the AT-1 antagonist, DUP753 (10 microM). The reducing agent dithiothreitol decreased the binding to AT-1 receptors and enhanced the binding to AT-2 receptors. The rat adrenal gland contains both AT-1 and AT-2 receptors in the ratio of approximately 3:2 in the cortex and 1:9 in the medulla. By contrast, in the kidney only AT-1 receptors were evident in glomeruli, proximal tubule, and inner stripe of the outer medulla. In the brain, the pattern of Ang II receptor subtypes varies greatly from region to region. Many brain structures known to be involved in blood pressure regulation and fluid and electrolyte balance, such as circumventricular organs (including vascular organ of the lamina terminalis, subfornical organ, median eminence, and area postrema), median preoptic nucleus, hypothalamic paraventricular nucleus, and regions in the medulla oblongata involved in autonomic control (nucleus of the solitary tract, dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus, and intermediate reticular nucleus), contain exclusively AT-1 receptors. By contrast, locus coeruleus, lateral septal nuclei, superior colliculus, subthalamic nucleus, many nuclei of the thalamus, and nuclei of the inferior olive contain predominantly AT-2 receptors. The detailed binding characteristics of each subtype were determined by competition studies with a series of antagonists. The pharmacological specificity obtained in kidney, adrenal cortex and adrenal medulla, superior colliculus, and nucleus of the solitary tract produces specificity patterns which confirm the assignments of AT-1 and AT-2 receptors described above. The present study reveals important pharmacological heterogeneity of Ang II receptors in key target organs. The subtype-specific receptor mapping described here is relevant to the understanding of the role of angiotensin peptides in peripheral organs and in the central nervous system and is relevant to the actions of non-peptide Ang II receptor antagonists.