1. The effect of the buffer concentration on binding of [3H]-N-methylscopolamine to muscarinic receptors M2 was tested in rat heart. Tracer binding was of low affinity in a 20 mM imidazole buffer (pKD 8.3), inhibited by an increase from 10 to 100 mM of the sodium phosphate buffer concentration (pKD 9.92 to 9.22), slightly inhibited by an increase of the Tris/HC1 buffer concentration from 20 to 100 mM (pKD 9.70 to 9.47) and unaffected by an increase of the histidine/HC1 buffer concentration from 20 to 100 mM (pKD 9.90 to 9.82). We chose the last buffer to analyse the effect of ions on antagonists binding to cardiac M2 receptors and to transiently expressed wild-type and (Y533-->F) mutant m3 muscarinic receptors in COS-7 cells. 2. Equilibrium [3H]-N-methylscopolamine binding to cardiac M2 receptors was inhibited, apparently competitively, by monovalent salts (LiCl > or = NaCl > or = KCl). In contrast, binding of the uncharged 3,3-dimethylbutan-1-ol ester of diphenylglycolic acid (BS-6181) was facilitated by addition of monovalent salts (LiCl > or = NaCl > or = KCl) to the binding buffer. This cation binding pattern is consistent with interaction with a large, negative field strength binding site, such as, for instance, a carboxylic acid. 3. In the presence of 100 mM NaCl, [3H]-N-methylscopolamine had a similar affinity for the wild-type m3 receptor (pKD 9.85) and for a (Y533-->F) mutant m3 receptor (pKD 9.68). However, in the absence of added salts, the tracer had a significantly lower affinity for the mutated (pKD 10.19) as compared to the wild-type (pKD 10.70) m3 receptor. BS-6181 had a significantly lower affinity for the (Y533-->F) mutant m3 muscarinic receptor, as compared to the wild-type m3 receptor, both in the absence (pKD 6.19-6.72) in the presence (pKD 6.48-7.40) of 100 mM NaCl. The effects of NaCl on binding of the uncharged ester and of [3H]-N-methylscopolamine to the m3 receptor were decreased by the mutation. 4. Taken together, these results support the hypothesis that monovalent cations from the buffer may interact with the cation binding site of the receptors (an aspartate residue in the third transmembrane helix of muscarinic receptors). Buffer cations may inhibit competitively the binding of (charged) muscarinic ligands having a tertiary amine or ammonium group, while facilitating the receptor recognition by uncharged, isosteric 'carbo-analogues'. Mutation of the (Y533-->F) of the m3 receptor decreased the affinity of the receptor for positive charges, including the sodium ion.