The prostate gland from several animal species contains variable levels of muscarinic subtypes, but only the human prostate expresses significant levels of the m1 subtype. We studied muscarinic receptor activity in human benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH) as well as several cell lines derived from prostate cancer. The BPH we studied expresses approximately 75% of the m1 receptor and undetectable levels of the other receptor subtypes whereas PC3 cells express only the m3 receptor subtype. DU145 and LnCaP cells express approximately equal levels of m1 and m3 receptor subtypes. Only the PC3 cells responded to carbachol with an increase in turnover of polyphosphoinositides, and none of the cell lines responded with effects on cAMP metabolism. Co-precipitation of receptors with heterotrimeric guanine nucleotide-binding regulatory proteins demonstrated interactions of the m1 receptors with Gi, Gq and G16 in BPH tissue and of the m1 and m3 receptors with Gi, Gq and G12 in PC3 and DU145 cells. Mitogen activated protein kinase (ERK) activity was seen in response to carbachol in PC3 and DU145 but not LnCaP cells. Finally, carbachol promoted cell proliferation in all three cell lines. Thus, there appears to be no consistent relationship between ERK activity, cell proliferation, and the subtype mediating the proliferative response, amongst these prostate cancer cell lines.