Most G protein-coupled receptors contain a series of highly conserved proline and tryptophan residues within their hydrophobic transmembrane domains (TMD I-VII). To study their potential role in ligand binding and receptor function, the rat m3 muscarinic acetylcholine receptor was used as a model system. A series of mutant receptors in which the conserved proline and tryptophan residues were individually replaced with alanine and phenylalanine, respectively, was created and transiently expressed in COS-7 cells. [3H]N-methylscopolamine ([3H]NMS) saturation binding studies showed that three of the seven mutant receptors studied (Pro242-->Ala, TMD V; Pro505-->Ala, TMD VI; Pro540-->Ala, TMD VII) were expressed at 35-100 times lower levels than the wild-type receptor while displaying 'm3-like' antagonist binding affinities. Pro201-->Ala (TMD IV) showed drastically reduced binding affinities (up to 450-fold) for both muscarinic agonists and antagonists. Whereas most mutant receptors retained strong functional activity, Pro540-->Ala (TMD VII) was found to be severely impaired in its ability to stimulate carbachol-induced phosphatidyl inositol hydrolysis (Emax approximately 25% of wild type m3). Interestingly, this mutant receptor bound muscarinic agonists with 7- to 19-fold higher affinities than the wild type receptor. The Trp-->Phe substitutions (Trp192-->Phe, TMD IV; Trp503-->Phe, TMD VI; Trp530-->Phe, TMD VII) resulted in less pronounced changes (compared with the Pro-->Ala mutant receptors) in both ligand binding and receptor function. Our data indicate that the proline residues that are highly conserved across the entire superfamily of G protein-coupled receptors play key roles in receptor expression, ligand binding and receptor activation.