The achiral symmetric alpha-aminoisobutyric acid (Aib) replaced the critical N-terminal residues of the amphibian skin opioid deltorphin C (H-Tyr-D-Ala-Phe-Asp-Val-Val-Gly-NH2) without detriment to the physicochemical requirements for delta opioid receptor recognition. Substitutions by the alpha, alpha-dialkyl amino acid in place of D-Ala2 or Phe3, or both, exhibited high delta receptor affinity (Ki delta = 0.12-3.6 nM) and 5-9-fold greater selectivity (Ki mu/Ki delta = 5000-8500) than the parent compound. This is the first definitive demonstration that the D-chirality of alanine and the aromaticity of phenylalanine are replaceable by an achiral alpha, alpha-dialkylated residue without detrimental effects on ligand binding. Incorporation of the mono-alpha-alkyl amino acid L- or D-Ala at the third position also produced highly selective delta ligands (Ki mu/Ki delta = 2000-3500), albeit with reduced delta affinities (Ki delta = 6-15 nM). Replacement of the anionic residue Asp4 by Aib yielded an opioid peptide that fit two-site binding models for the delta receptor (eta = 0.763; P < 0.0001) and displayed dual high affinity for both delta and mu receptors, emphasizing the repulsive effect by a negative charge at mu receptor sites and the insignificance of Asp for delta affinity. Molecular dynamics conformation analyses suggested that Aib residues caused distinct changes in deltorphin C secondary structure when substituted for D-Ala2, Asp4, and simultaneously D-Ala2 and Phe3 but not when substituted for Phe3. These conformational changes might be critical factors for the proper orientation of reactive constituents of residues in the N-terminal region of deltorphin C. Disparities between binding data and functional bioassays of [Aib3] indicated that Phe3 was required for bioactivity in mouse vas deferens but not for interaction with delta opioid receptors in rat brain membranes.