Muscarinic receptors regulate a number of important basic physiologic functions including heart rate and motor and sensory control as well as more complex behaviors including arousal, memory, and learning. Loss of muscarinic receptor number or function has been implicated in the etiology of several neurological disorders including Alzheimer's dementia, Down's syndrome, and Parkinson's disease. Muscarinic receptors transduce their signals by coupling with G-proteins, which then modulate the activity of a number of effector enzymes and ion channels. Five subtypes of muscarinic receptors (m1-m5) have been identified by molecular cloning and much has been learned about their distribution, pharmacology, and structure. Less is known about the molecular mechanisms of receptor-effector coupling and the biological role of each receptor subtype. The ectopic expression of genes encoding a single muscarinic receptor subtype in mammalian cell lines has provided an important model system in which to investigate receptor subtype-specific pharmacology and signal transduction. Expression models have revealed that single muscarinic receptor m1, m3, or m5 subtypes can activate multiple signaling effectors simultaneously including phospholipases A2, C, and D, as well as tyrosine kinase and a novel class of voltage-insensitive calcium channels. The m2 or m4 receptors have been shown to augment phospholipase A2 in addition to their established role as inhibitory receptors acting through the attenuation of adenylate cyclase. In addition to allowing investigations of the regulatory mechanisms of muscarinic receptors, expression models provide an excellent tool to investigate receptor-subtype specific physiology and pharmacology.