The opioid peptides are derived from three prohormone precursors referred to as proopiomelanocortin (POMC), proenkephalin (ProEnk) and prodynorphin (ProDyn). Following specific cleavage, several biologically active peptides are generated that can bind to the mu, delta and kappa receptors. The present study examines the receptor binding affinities of the POMC, ProEnk and ProDyn peptides to the cloned mu, delta and kappa receptors expressed transiently in transfected COS-1 cells. Consistent with previous findings using brain homogenates, competition studies demonstrate that no opioid peptide family can be exclusively associated with a specific opioid receptor type. Short ProEnk peptides, such as Leu- and Met-enkephalin are selective for delta, but C-terminally extended peptides such as Met-Enk-Arg-Gly-Leu and Met-Enk-Arg-Phe have a high affinity to micro, delta and kappa. Similarly, Peptide E, the BAM peptides, and metorphamide have a high affinity for all three opioid receptor types. While dynorphin A peptides and alpha- and beta-neoendorphin have a preference for kappa, they also bind the cloned delta and mu receptors. Our findings do not easily fit a simple 'message-address' model where the Try-Gly-Gly-Phe core is extended and this gradually alters selectivity. Rather, the pattern appears more discontinuous, and would fit better with the idea of two similar but distinct cores; a Try-Gly-Gly-Phe Met- or Leu core that is necessary and sufficient for mu and delta but not kappa and a Tyr-Gly-Gly-Phe-Met or Leu core with an Arg-X extension that is equally necessary and sufficient for kappa.