The fetal rat muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptor was expressed in Xenopus oocytes. Using the voltage-clamp technique, the response to a range of agonists was measured, listed in order of (decreasing) activity efficacy: anatoxin > or = epibatidine > acetylcholine > DMPP (1,1-dimethyl-4-phenylpiperazinium) > > cytisine > pyrantel > nicotine > coniine > tubocurare > lobeline. The agonist responses were compared with the steric and electrostatic properties of the molecules, using molecular modelling. Single-channel current were measured in outside-out patches for acetylcholine, nicotine, cytisine, anatoxin and epibatidine. The conductance of the single channels was independent of the type of agonist. The mean open times were characteristic of the agonist applied. Tubocurare, better known for its antagonist properties, was also a partial agonist. Single-channel currents were also observed for tubocurare, and for methyllycaconitine in patches with a very high density of the muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, and these were blocked by alpha-bungarotoxin. The agonist properties of physostigmine, galanthamine and their methyl derivatives were also investigated. The conductance of the channels observed in outside-out patches was similar to that obtained for the classical agonists. The single-channel currents observed for physostigmine, galanthamine and their methyl derivatives were blocked by alpha-bungarotoxin, methyllycaconitine and mecamylamine, in contrast to previously reported studies on neuronal and adult muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.