Phosphorylation of G protein-coupled receptors is considered an important step during their desensitization. In SK-N-BE cells, recently presented as a pertinent model for the studies of the human delta-opioid receptor, pretreatment with the opioid agonist etorphine increased time-dependently the rate of phosphorylation of a 51-kDa membrane protein. Immunological characterization of this protein with an antibody, raised against the amino-terminal region of the cloned human delta-opioid receptor, revealed that it corresponded to the delta-opioid receptor. During prolonged treatment with etorphine, phosphorylation increased as early as 15 min to reach a maximum within 1 h. Phosphorylation and desensitization of adenylyl cyclase inhibition paralleled closely and okadaic acid inhibited the resensitization, a result strongly suggesting that phosphorylation of the delta-opioid receptor plays a prominent role in its rapid desensitization. The increase in phosphorylation of the delta-opioid receptor, as well as its desensitization, was not affected by H7, an inhibitor of protein kinase A and protein kinase C, but was drastically reduced by heparin or Zn2+, known to act as G protein-coupled receptor kinase (GRK) inhibitors. These results are the first to show, on endogenously expressed human delta-opioid receptor, that a close link exists between receptor phosphorylation and agonist-promoted desensitization and that desensitization involves a GRK.