1. Modulation of GABA(A) receptors by external H(+) was examined in cultured rat sympathetic neurones, and in Xenopus laevis oocytes and human embryonic kidney (HEK) cells expressing recombinant GABA(A) receptors composed of combinations of alpha 1, beta 1, beta 2, gamma 2S and delta subunits. 2. Changing the external pH from 7.4 reduced GABA-activated currents in sympathetic neurones. pH titration of the GABA-induced current was fitted with a pH model which predicted that H(+) interact with two sites (PK(a) values of 6.4 and 7.2). 3. For alpha 1 beta 1 GABA(A) receptors, low external pH (< 7.4) enhanced responses to GABA. pH titration predicted the existence of two sites with PK(a) values of 6.6 and 7.5. The GABA concentration-response curve was shifted to the left by low pH and non-competitively inhibited at high pH (> 7.4). 4. alpha 1 beta 1 gamma 2S receptor constructs were not affected by external pH, whereas exchanging the beta 1 subunit for beta 2 conferred a sensitivity to pH, with predicted PK(a) values of 5.16 and 9.44. 5. Low pH enhanced the responses to GABA on alpha 1 beta 1 delta subunits, whilst high pH caused an inhibition (PK(a) values of 6.6 and 9.9). The GABA concentration-response curves were enhanced (pH 5.4) or reduced (pH 9.4) with no changes in the GABA EC(50). 6. Immunoprecipitation with subunit and epitope-specific antisera to alpha 1, beta 1 and delta subunits demonstrated that these subunits could co-assemble in cell membranes. 7. Expression of alpha 1 beta 1 gamma 2S delta constructs resulted in a 'bell-shaped' pH titration relationship. Increasing or decreasing external pH inhibited the responses to GABA. 8. The pH sensitivity of recombinant GABA(A) receptors expressed in HEK cells was generally in accordance with data accrued from Xenopus oocytes. However, rapid application of GABA to alpha 1 beta 1 constructs at high pH (> 7.4) caused an increased peak and reduced steady-state current, with a correspondingly increased rate of desensitization. 9. Modulation of GABA(A) receptor function was apparently unaffected by the internal pH. Moreover, pH values between 5 and 9.5 did not significantly affect the charge distribution on the zwitterionic GABA molecules. 10. In conclusion, this study demonstrates that external pH can either enhance, have little effect, or reduce GABA-activated responses, and this is apparently dependent on the receptor subunit composition. The potential importance of H(+) sensitivity of GABA(A) receptors is discussed.