The secretin amino-terminal residues are essential for high affinity binding to its cognate receptor and for its biological activity. Mutation of the [Asp3] residue of secretin to [Asn3] decreased the ligand's affinity for the rat wild-type receptor 100-300-fold. Receptor mutations in the transmembrane 2 domain and the beginning of the first extracellular loop allowed the identification of three residues involved in recognition of the [Asp3] residue: D174, K173 and R166. Mutation of K173 and D174 not only reduced the secretin and [Asn3]secretin affinities, but also changed the receptor's selectivity as judged by a decreased secretin and [Asn3]secretin potency ratio. The most striking effect was observed when R166 was mutated to Q, D or L. This led to receptors with a very low affinity for secretin but an up to 10-fold higher affinity than the wild-type receptor for [Asn3]secretin. This suggested that R166, highly conserved in that subgroup of receptor, is a major determinant for the recognition of the [Asp3] of the ligand.