Endomorphin-1 is a peptide whose binding selectivity suggests a role as an endogenous ligand at mu-opioid receptors. In the present study, the effect of endomorphin-1 on mu receptor-coupled G proteins was compared with that of the mu agonist DAMGO by using agonist-stimulated [35S]GTPgammaS binding in rat brain. [35S]GTPgammaS autoradiography revealed a similar localization of endomorphin-1- and DAMGO-stimulated [35S]GTPgammaS binding in areas including thalamus, caudate-putamen, amygdala, periaqueductal gray, parabrachial nucleus, and nucleus tractus solitarius. Naloxone blocked endomorphin-1-stimulated labeling in all regions examined. Although the distribution of endomorphin-1-stimulated [35S]GTPgammaS binding resembled that of DAMGO, the magnitude of endomorphin-1-stimulated binding was significantly lower than that produced by DAMGO. Concentration-effect curves of endomorphin-1 and DAMGO in thalamic membranes confirmed that endomorphin-1 produced only 70% of DAMGO-stimulated [35S]GTPgammaS binding. Differences in maximal stimulation of [35S]GTPgammaS binding between DAMGO and endomorphin-1 were magnified by increasing GDP concentrations, and saturation analysis of net endomorphin-1-stimulated [35S]GTPgammaS binding revealed a lower apparent Bmax value than that obtained with DAMGO. Endomorphin-1 also partially antagonized DAMGO stimulation of [35S]GTPgammaS binding. These results demonstrate that endomorphin-1 is a partial agonist for G protein activation at the mu-opioid receptor in brain.