The time course of muscarinic effects on K and Ca currents was investigated at 22-24 degrees C in guinea-pig atrial myocytes, using the whole-cell voltage clamp. At a holding potential of -40 or -50 mV, short exposures to 100 microM acetylcholine (ACh) or carbachol (CCh) reproducibly induced outward K currents (IK,ACh). During long exposures to these agonists, IK,ACh faded with time. In cells not dialysed with guanosine triphosphate (GTP), IK,ACh could dissipate completely following 15-20 min of agonist exposure. After agonist washout, lost sensitivity was not recovered. In cells dialysed with GTP (0.2-1 mM), IK,ACh still faded but normal sensitivity to agonists was restored with washout. Fade of IK,ACh was not prevented by intracellular heparin or dextran, excluding the involvement of either beta-adrenergic or muscarinic receptor kinase. IK,ACh induced by bethanechol or adenosine also faded, and subsequent CCh application after washout revealed a diminished response. Intracellular guanosine-5'-o-(3-thiotriphosphate (GTP gamma S) induced IK,ACh which faded, and subsequent exposure to CCh was without effect. Equally, after full desensitization with CCh, GTP gamma S failed to induce IK,ACh. The Ca current (ICa) was activated by voltage steps to 0 mV and increased with 1-3 microM isoproterenol. This increase could be reversed by CCh, even when IK,ACh had completely faded. Prolonged muscarinic agonist exposure sometimes also caused fade of the effect on ICa, which always occurred after loss of IK,ACh. The results show that desensitization is heterologous and may involve the guanine nucleotide-binding (G) protein. The differential desensitization to the effects on IK,ACh and ICa suggests the involvement of two different signalling pathways in the muscarinic control of K and Ca channels.