PACAP (pituitary adenylate-cyclase-activating peptide)-binding receptors were investigated in membranes from the rat pancreatic acinar cell line, AR 4-2J, the rat hippocampus and the human neuroblastoma cell line NB-OK, by 125I-PACAP(1-27) (amino acid residues 1-27 of N-terminal amidated PACAP) binding and adenylate cyclase activation. The relative binding of 125I-PACAP(1-27) to the receptor, and ability to activate adenylate cyclase were PACAP greater than or equal to PACAP(1-27) greater than PACAP(2-38) greater than PACAP(1-9)-VIP(10-28)(PACAP-VIP) greater than PACAP(2-27) greater than [Ser9,Tyr13]VIP greater than [Tyr13]VIP greater than or equal to [Ser9]VIP greater than or equal to VIP(1-23)-PACAP(24-27)(VIP-PACAP) greater than VIP (vasoactive intestinal peptide). The N-terminal moiety of PACAP(1-27) was more important than the three amino acids at the C-terminus for 125I-PACAP(1-27)-binding site recognition. For rat pancreatic 125I-VIP-binding sites tested with 125I-VIP, the order of binding affinity was PACAP = PACAP(1-27) greater than or equal to VIP = [Ser9]VIP = [Tyr13]VIP = [Ser9,Try13]VIP greater than or equal to PACAP-VIP greater than or equal to VIP-PACAP greater than PACAP(2-38) = PACAP(2-27). Pancreatic 125I-VIP-binding sites, when compared to 125I-PACAP(1-27)-binding sites, showed little specificity and only weak coupling, so that PACAP and VIP-PACAP acted only as partial VIP agonists on adenylate cyclase.