Pituitary adenylate cyclase activating polypeptide (PACAP) analogues were tested for their ability to occupy the recombinant selective PACAP receptors (PACAP type I receptor) or the non-selective PACAP-vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) receptors (PACAP type II, VIP1 and VIP2 receptors) stably transfected and expressed in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells. The synthetic analogues consisted of N- and/or C-terminally shortened peptides. Thus, peptides starting at amino acid 1, 2, 3 or 6 and terminating at amino acid 27, 29, 30, 32 or 38 were compared on the three receptors studied. The shortening of PACAP-(1-38) to PACAP-(1-27) was of little influence. However, in N-terminally deleted peptides the PACAP-38 derivatives were of higher affinity than the PACAP-27 fragments on PACAP type I and PACAP type II, VIP2 receptors but not on PACAP type II, VIP1 receptors. The presence of the sequence 28-32 was in all cases sufficient to reproduce the data obtained with the PACAP-38 analogues. PACAP-(3-32) is able to discriminate the PACAP type II, VIP2 subtype from the other two subtypes, and PACAP-(6-30), PACAP-(6-32) and PACAP-(6-38) can discriminate the PACAP type II, VIP1 receptors from the other two subtypes. These molecules may help in the quantitative detection of receptor subclasses in complex systems when two or more receptor subtypes are found.