We have investigated the subtype of alpha 2-adrenoceptor mediating isometric contractions of human saphenous vein in comparison with alpha 2-adrenoceptor ligand binding sites. Postjunctional alpha 2-adrenoceptors in the human saphenous vein were investigated in terms of the ability of alpha 2-adrenoceptor antagonists to shift the contractile potency of noradrenaline. The following antagonists were employed (potencies, pKB, in human saphenous vein in parentheses): chlorpromazine (6.98 +/- 0.24), BDF 8933 (7.60 +/- 0.06), prazosin (6.62 +/- 0.15), ARC 239 (7.19 +/- 0.15), yohimbine (7.23 +/- 0.09), HV 723 (7.52 +/- 0.14), WB 4101 (7.90 +/- 0.06), SKF 104078 (6.55 +/- 0.08), BRL 44408 (5.72 +/- 0.21). Antagonist potency at postjunctional alpha 2-adrenoceptors was correlated with antagonist affinity at alpha 2-adrenoceptor ligand binding sites in membranes of human platelet (alpha 2A), rat kidney (alpha 2B) and Sf9 cells expressing human recombinant receptors (alpha 2C), labelled with [3H]yohimbine. The correlation with the postjunctional alpha 2-adrenoceptor mediating contraction of the human saphenous vein was best for the human recombinant alpha 2C-adrenoceptor ligand binding site (r = 0.92, n = 8, P < 0.001), as compared to correlations with the alpha 2B-adrenoceptor ligand binding site of rat kidney (r = 0.62, n = 8, n.s.) and with the alpha 2A-adrenoceptor ligand binding site of human platelet (r = 0.23, n = 8, n.s.). It is concluded that the functional postjunctional alpha 2-adrenoceptor mediating contractions of the human saphenous vein closely resembles the human recombinant alpha 2C-adrenoceptor ligand binding site.