1. The effects of extracellular adenosine 5'-triphosphate (ATP) on pulmonary vagal afferent fibres (n = 46) was studied in a canine model in vivo (n = 38). 2. ATP (3-6 mumol kg-1), administered as a rapid bolus into the right atrium, elicited a transient burst of action potentials in cervical vagal fibres, which was not affected by either blockade of ganglionic transmission (hexamethonium) or a drop in arterial blood pressure (nitroglycerine). 3. The fibres with ATP-sensitive terminals were otherwise quiescent with no activity related to either cardiac or respiratory cycles and their conduction velocity was 0.85 +/- 0.13 m s-1 (n = 7). 4. Inflation of the lungs to 2-3 times the tidal volume triggered brief bursts of action potentials in these fibres. 5. Capsaicin (10 micrograms kg-1), given as a rapid bolus into the right atrium, elicited a burst of action potentials in these ATP-sensitive fibres. 6. Smaller amounts of ATP and capsaicin (0.5-3 mumol kg-1 and 1-5 micrograms kg-1, respectively) had similar effects when the two compounds were given into the right pulmonary artery. 7. Adenosine, adenosine 5'-monophosphate, or adenosine 5'-diphosphate did not excite these fibres (n = 30). 8. The non-degradable analogue of ATP alpha,beta-methylene ATP (alpha,beta-mATP) was tenfold more potent than ATP while beta,gamma-methylene ATP (beta,gamma-mATP) was in active. 9. The selective P2x-purinoceptor antagonist pyridoxalphosphate-6-azophenyl-2',4'-disulphonic acid markedly attenuated the effect of ATP but not of capsaicin. The P2Y-purinoceptor antagonist Reactive Blue 2 was without effect. 10. Pretreatment with pertussis toxin (PTX) did not affect this action of ATP. 11. In the canine lungs ATP activates vagal C fibre nerve terminals. This action is mediated by P2X-purinoceptors and is independent of a PTX-sensitive guanine nucleotide binding protein (G protein).