The recent molecular cloning of the genes encoding three somatostatin (SRIF) receptor subtypes has allowed for the individual expression of these receptors in mammalian cells and characterization of their respective pharmacological profiles. In the present study, we have investigated the affinities of a battery of SRIF analogues to bind to SRIF receptor subtypes SSTR1 (cloned somatostatin complex), SSTR2, and SSTR3, as well as their abilities to inhibit the release of growth hormone from anterior pituitary cells in vitro. We labeled SSTR1 and SSTR3 receptors expressed in Chinese hamster ovary and COS-1 cells, respectively, with the metabolically stable SRIF analogue 125I-CGP 23996. SSTR2 receptors expressed in Chinese hamster ovary cells were labeled with the SSTR2-specific radioligand 125I-MK-678. Inhibition studies were performed using SRIF analogues of differing structures, including hexapeptide analogues similar to MK-678, octapeptide analogues similar to SMS 201-995, pentapeptide analogues similar to c[Ahep-Phe-D-Trp-Lys-Thr(Bzl)] (SA), and linear SRIF analogues. SSTR1 bound SRIF and SRIF-28 with high affinity and the peptide SA and its structural analogues with low affinity. The hexapeptides did not interact with SSTR1 at concentrations as high as 1 microM, and only a few of the octapeptides or linear peptides bound, with very low affinities. In contrast, 125I-MK-678 binding to SSTR2 was potently inhibited by the hexapeptides, octapeptides, and some of the linear compounds, whereas SA and its analogues did not bind to SSTR2. The potencies of the various SRIF agonists to inhibit growth hormone release in vitro was highly correlated with their potencies to inhibit radioligand binding to SSTR2, but not to SSTR1 or SSTR3. SSTR3 bound analogues of each class but with moderate to low affinities, with the exception of several linear peptides and one of the octapeptides. We report for the first time the binding affinities of linear analogues of SRIF, some of which display subnanomolar affinities and are highly selective for SRIF receptor subtypes. Most importantly, these studies identify several peptide analogues that are highly potent, specific, and selective for individual subtypes of SRIF receptors. Such information, coupled with the knowledge of the distribution of these receptor subtypes in normal and pathological tissues, will be critical for more specific experimental and therapeutic interventions.