Four subtypes of bombesin receptors are identified (gastrin-releasing peptide receptor, neuromedin B receptor, the orphan receptor bombesin receptor subtype 3 (BB3 or BRS-3) and bombesin receptor subtype 4 (BB4)), however, only the pharmacology of the gastrin-releasing peptide receptor has been well studied. This lack of data is due in part to the absence of a general ligand. Recently we have discovered a ligand, 125I-[D-Tyr6,betaAla11,Phe13,Nle14]bombesin-(6-1 4) that binds to BRS-3 receptors. In this study we investigate its ability to interact with all four bombesin receptor subtypes. In rat pancreatic acini containing only gastrin-releasing peptide receptor and in BB4 transfected BALB cells, this ligand and 125I-[Tyr4]bombesin, the conventional gastrin-releasing peptide receptor ligand, gave similar results for receptor number, affinity for bombesin and affinity for the unlabeled ligand. In neuromedin B receptor transfected BALB cells, this ligand and 125I-[D-Tyr0]neuromedin B, the generally used neuromedin B receptor ligand, gave similar results for receptor number, neuromedin B affinity or the unlabeled ligand affinity. Lastly, in BRS-3 transfected BALB cells, only this ligand had high affinity. For all four bombesin receptors this ligand had an affinity of 1-8 nM and was equal or greater in affinity than any other specific ligands for any receptor. The unlabeled ligand is specific for gastrin-releasing peptide receptors on rat pancreatic acini and did not inhibit binding of 125I-cholecystokinin octapeptide (125I-CCK-8), 125I-vasoactive intestinal peptide (125I-VIP) or 125I-endothelin to their receptors. The unlabeled ligand was an agonist only at the gastrin-releasing peptide receptor in rat acini and did not interact with CCK(A) receptors or muscarinic M3 acetylcholine receptors to increase [3H]inositol phosphates. These results demonstrate 125I-[D-Tyr6,betaAla11,Phe13,Nle14]bombesin-(6-1 4) is a unique ligand with high affinity for all subtypes of bombesin receptors. Because of the specificity for bombesin receptors, this ligand will be a valuable addition for such pharmacological studies as screening for bombesin receptor agonists or antagonists and, in particular, for investigating BRS-3 cell biology, a receptor for which no ligand currently exists.