We have used single cell clones of Swiss 3T3 cells transfected with genes for the human 5-HT1A or 5-HT2 receptor to study down-regulation and desensitization. After pre-incubation of the cells with serotonin agonists, a time-dependent decrease in [3H]8-hydroxy-2-(di-n-propylamino) tetralin or [3H]ketanserin binding was observed. The pertussis toxin sensitive, 5-HT mediated inhibition of forskolin-stimulated cAMP accumulation in 5-HT1A receptor transfected cells was diminished by 68% after a 2 h pre-incubation of the cells with 10 microM 5-HT. The pertussis toxin insensitive, 5-HT mediated PI turnover in 5-HT2 receptor transfected cells was decreased by 65% after pre-treatment. While this decrease was paralleled by a decreased potency of 5-HT to stimulate PI turnover, in 5-HT1A cells the potency of 5-HT to inhibit cAMP formation was comparable to control values. The down-regulation and desensitization of the 5-HT2 receptor can be explained by phosphorylation via activated PKC. In contrast, the attenuation of the 5-HT1A receptor-coupled inhibition of cAMP accumulation has to occur by an alternative, as yet unknown, molecular mechanism.