Necturus taste buds contain two primary cell types: taste receptor cells and basal cells. Merkel-like basal cells are a subset of basal cells that form chemical synapses with taste receptor cells and with innervating nerve fibers. Although Merkel-like basal cells cannot interact directly with taste stimuli, recent studies have shown that Merkel-like basal cells contain serotonin (5-HT), which may be released onto taste receptor cells in response to taste stimulation. With the use of whole cell voltage clamp, we examined whether focal applications of 5-HT to isolated taste receptor cells affected voltage-activated calcium current (I(Ca)). Two different effects were observed. 5-HT at 100 microM increased I(Ca) in 33% of taste receptor cells, whereas it decreased I(Ca) in 67%. Both responses used a 5-HT receptor subtype with a pharmacological profile similar to that of the 5-HT1A receptor, but the potentiation and inhibition of I(Ca) by 5-HT were mediated by two different second-messenger cascades. The results indicate that functional subtypes of taste receptor cells, earlier defined only by their sensitivity to taste stimuli, may also be defined by their response to the neurotransmitter 5-HT and suggest that 5-HT released by Merkel-like basal cells could modulate taste receptor function.