We have characterized the rat prostanoid EP1, EP2, EP3alpha and EP4 receptor subtypes cloned from spleen, hepatocyte and/or kidney cDNA libraries. Comparison of the deduced amino acid sequences of the rat EP receptors with their respective homologues from mouse and human showed 91% to 98% and 82% to 89% identity, respectively. Radioreceptor binding assays and functional assays were performed on EP receptor expressing human embryonic kidney (HEK) 293 cells. The KD values obtained with prostaglandin E2 for the prostanoid receptor subtypes EP1, EP2, EP3alpha and EP4 were approximately 24, 5, 1 and 1 nM, respectively. The rank order of affinities for various prostanoids at the prostanoid receptor subtypes EP2, EP3alpha and EP4 receptor subtypes was prostaglandin E2 = prostaglandin E1 > iloprost > prostaglandin F2alpha > prostaglandin D2 > U46619. The rank order at the prostanoid EP1 receptor was essentially the same except that iloprost had the highest affinity of the prostanoids tested. Of the selective ligands, butaprost was selective for prostanoid EP2, M&B28767 and sulprostone were selective for EP3alpha and enprostil displayed dual selectivity, interacting with both prostanoid receptor subtypes EP1 and EP3alpha. All four receptors coupled to their predominant signal transduction pathways in HEK 293 cells. Notably, using a novel aequorin luminescence assay to monitor prostanoid EP1 mediated increases in intracellular calcium, both iloprost and sulprostone were identified as partial agonists. Finally, by Northern blot analysis EP3 transcripts were most abundant in liver and kidney whereas prostanoid EP2 receptor mRNA was expressed in spleen, lung and testis and prostanoid EP1 receptor mRNA transcripts were predominantly expressed in the kidney. The rat prostanoid EP1 probes also detected additional and abundant transcripts present in all the tissues examined. These were found to be related to the expression of a novel protein kinase gene and not the prostanoid EP1 gene [Batshake, B., Sundelin, J., 1996. The mouse genes for the EP1 prostanoid receptor and the novel protein kinase overlap. Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 227. 1329-1333].