We isolated and characterized a cDNA encoding the human metabotropic glutamate receptor subtype 1b (hmGluR1b). In situ hybridization studies in human brain regions revealed a higher distribution of mGluR1 mRNA in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, the substantia nigra pars compacta and the Purkinje cell layer of the cerebellum compared to other regions studied. We established stable expression of recombinant hmGluR1b in L(tk-) mouse fibroblast and Chinese hamster ovary (CHO-dhfr-) cells. In both expression systems, agonist activation of hmGluR1b stimulated inositol phosphate (InsP) formation and elevation of the cytosolic free calcium ([Ca2+]i), and both responses were blocked by (S)-MCPG. The rank order of potency for agonists was quisqualate > glutamate > (1S,3R)-ACPD in both expression systems. Comparison of the agonist profiles of hmGluR1b and hmGluR5a, both stably expressed in L(tk-) cells, indicated the same rank order of potency (quisqualate > glutamate > or = (RS)-3,5-DHPG > or = (1S,3R)-ACPD), but each of the four agonists were more potent on hmGluR5a than on hmGluR1b. In antagonist studies, (S)-MCPG inhibited the agonist-induced InsP formation and elevation of [Ca2+]i in both hmGluR1b- and hmGluR5a-expressing cells. (S)-4CPG and (S)-4C3HPG both inhibited agonist responses only in hmGluR1b-expressing cells. However, in hmGluR5a-expressing cells the antagonist activity of (S)-4CPG and (S)-4C3HPG was dependent on the agonist used in the study, since they inhibited responses to glutamate but not to quisqualate. Stable cell lines expressing specific subtypes of human mGluRs represent valuable tools for the study of the mechanism of action of mGluRs at the molecular and cellular level and as screening targets for identification of subtype-selective agonists or antagonists.