1. Whole-cell and single-channel currents elicited by extracellular ATP were studied in freshly dissociated smooth muscle cells from the stomach of the toad Bufo marinus using standard patch clamp and microfluorimetric techniques. 2. This ATP-gated cation channel shares a number of pharmacological and functional properties with native rat myometrium receptors, certain native P2Z purinoceptors and the recently cloned P2X7 purinoceptor. But, unlike the last two, the ATP-gated channel does not mediate the formation of large non-specific pores. Thus, it may represent a novel member of the P2X or P2Z class. 3. Extracellular application of ATP (> or = 150 microM) elicited an inward whole-cell current at negative holding potentials that was inwardly rectifying and showed no sign of desensitization. Na+, Cs+ and, to a lesser degree, the organic cation choline served as charge carriers, but Cl- did not. Ratiometric fura-2 measurements indicated that the current is carried in part by Ca2+. The EC50 for ATP was 700 microM in solutions with a low divalent cation concentration. 4. ATP (> or = 100 microM) at the extracellular surface of cell-attached or excised patches elicited inwardly rectifying single-channel currents with a 22 pS conductance. Cl- did not serve as a charge carrier but both Na+ and Cs+ did, as did choline to a lesser extent. The mean open time of the channel was quite long, with a range in hundreds of milliseconds at a holding potential of -70 mV. 5. Mg2+ and Ca2+ decreased the magnitude of the ATP-induced whole-cell currents. Mg2+ decreased both the amplitude and the activity of ATP-activated single-channel currents. 6. ADP, UTP, P1, P5-di-adenosine pentaphosphate (AP5A), adenosine and alpha, beta-methylene ATP (alpha, beta-Me-ATP) did not induce significant whole-cell current. ATP-gamma-S and 2-methylthio ATP (2-Me-S-ATP) were significantly less effective than ATP in inducing whole-cell currents, whereas benzoylbenzoyl ATP (BzATP) was more effective. BzATP, alpha, beta-Me-ATP, ATP-gamma-S and 2-Me-S-ATP induced single-channel currents, but a higher concentration of alpha, beta-Me-ATP was required. 7. BzATP did not induce the formation of large non-specific pores, as assayed using mag-fura-2 as a high molecular mass probe.