In this study, we have identified and characterized functional alpha2-adrenergic receptor (alpha2-AR) subtypes in human corpus cavernosum and in cultured human corpus cavernosum smooth muscle cells. Analysis of total RNA, isolated from whole corpus cavernosum tissue and smooth muscle cells, by RNase protection assays, demonstrated expression of mRNA for alpha2A, alpha2B, and alpha2C adrenergic receptor subtypes in whole tissue and alpha2A and alpha2C subtypes in cultured smooth muscle cells. Binding studies with [3H]RX821002 (a highly selective and specific ligand for alpha2-adrenergic receptor) in isolated membrane fractions of human corpus cavernosum smooth muscle cells, demonstrated specific alpha2-AR binding sites with high affinity (Kd = 0.63 nM) and limited capacity (25-30 fmol/mg protein). Binding of [3H]RX821002 was displaced with the nonselective alpha-AR antagonist, phentolamine, and with the alpha-AR agonist, norepinephrine, in a dose-dependent manner, but not by the selective alpha1-AR agonist, phenylephrine. Binding of [3H]rauwolscine was also displaced by phentolamine. UK 14,304, a selective alpha2-AR agonist, inhibited forskolin-induced cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) synthesis in cultured human corpus cavernosum smooth muscle cells and induced dose-dependent contractions of tissue strips in organ bath chambers. UK 14,304-induced contractions were inhibited with alpha2-AR selective antagonists, rauwolscine and delquamine (RS 15385-197). These observations suggest that in human corpus cavernosum, norepinephrine (NE) and epinephrine may activate postsynaptic alpha2-AR subtypes, in addition to activating alpha1-AR subtypes, on smooth muscle cells, contributing to local control of human corpus cavernosum smooth muscle tone, in vivo.