Motilin, a 22-amino acid peptide synthesized in endocrine cells of intestinal mucosa, stimulates GI smooth muscle contractility. To elucidate the mode of action of motilin, we attempted to determine whether motilin receptors are localized on nerve cells or on smooth muscle cells of the GI tract. Mucosa-free tissues from rabbit antrum and duodenum were homogenized separately with a Polytron prior to differential centrifugation to obtain synaptosome or plasma membrane-enriched fractions, as determined by the distribution of [3H]saxitoxin (SAX) binding (neural membranes) and 5' nucleotidase (5'N) activity (smooth muscle plasma membranes). Motilin binding was evaluated by the displacement of [125I]motilin by motilin (1-22) on the various membrane fractions. In the antrum, motilin binding was highly correlated with SAX binding (r = 0.81, p < 0.0005), and also significantly with 5'N activity (r = 0.54, p < 0.05). In the duodenum, motilin binding correlated significantly with 5'N activity (r = 0.67, p < 0.005), but not with SAX binding (r = -0.11, NS). Receptor affinity, for the motilin antagonist MOT(1-12)[CH2NH]10-11, for motilin(1-22), and for the motilin agonist erythromycin lactobionate was significantly (p < 0.001, p < 0.001, and p < 0.05, respectively) higher in SAX-enriched fractions from the antrum than in 5'N-enriched fractions from the duodenum. Therefore, in the rabbit: 1) motilin receptors appear to be predominantly located on nerve tissues in the antrum and restricted to smooth muscle cells in the duodenum, and 2) antral receptors and duodenal receptors displayed different pharmacological characteristics, probably corresponding to two specific and heterogeneous motilin receptor subtypes.