1. A series of terpenoid compounds, recently isolated from Picrodendron baccatum, share a picrotoxane skeleton with picrotoxinin, an antagonist of ionotropic GABA receptors. Referred to as picrodendrins, they inhibit the binding of [35S]-tert-butylbicyclophosphorothionate (TBPS) to rat GABAA receptors. Hitherto, their effects on GABA receptors have not been investigated electrophysiologically. Under two-electrode voltage-clamp, the actions of picrodendrins and related terpenoids have been assayed on homooligomeric GABA receptors formed by the expression of a Drosophila GABA receptor subunit (RDLac) in Xenopus oocytes. 2. All the terpenoids tested, dose-dependently antagonized currents induced by 30 microM (EC50) GABA. 3. Tutin and its analogues (dihydrotutin and isohyenanchin) differ in the structure of their axial C4 substituents. Of these compounds, tutin, which bears an isopropenyl group at this carbon atom, was the most potent antagonist of RDLac homo-oligomers, whereas isohyenanchin, which bears a hydroxyisopropyl group, was the least potent antagonist tested. 4. Picrodendrins differ mainly in the structure of their C9 substituents. The IC50s of picrodendrins ranged from 17 +/- 1.3 nM (picrodendrin-Q) to 1006 +/- 1.3 nM (picrodendrin-O). As such, the most potent picrodendrins (Q, A and B) were approximately equipotent with picrotoxinin as antagonists of RDLac homo-oligomers. 5. Certain picrodendrin compounds effected a use-dependent blockade of RDLac homo-oligomers. Such a biphasic block was not observed with tutin analogues. 6. Picrotoxin-resistant RDLacA3025 homo-oligomers, which have a single amino acid substitution (A302S) in the 2nd transmembrane region, were markedly less sensitive to picrodendrin-O than the wild-type, dieldrin-sensitive, homo-oligomers. 7. The relative potency of tutin analogues demonstrates that the structure-activity relationship of the C4 substituent of picrotoxane-based compounds is conserved in vertebrates and insects. However, the relative order of potency of picrodendrins on RDLac homo-oligomers is distinctly different from that observed in previous radioligand binding studies performed on vertebrate GABAA receptors. As picrodendrin compounds differ in the structure of their C9 substituents, these data suggest that the optimal convulsant pharmacophores of vertebrate GABAA receptors and RDLac homo-oligomers differ with respect to this substituent.