Binding studies with the radiolabeled muscarinic antagonists dexetimide, quinuclidinyl benzilate and N-methylscopolamine showed that the human embryonic lung fibroblast CCL137 possesses approximately 2 X 10(5) muscarinic receptors/cell, i.e. 2.1 pmol/mg membrane protein. These receptors showed a marked stereoselectivity towards dexetimide and levetimide and only low affinity for another antagonist, pirenzepine. The muscarinic agonist carbamylcholine inhibited forskolin-stimulated adenylate cyclase and induced phosphatidylinositide turnover in the intact cells. Both effects were inhibited by the muscarinic antagonist atropine. Affinity labeling with tritiated propylbenzylcholine mustard revealed a protein of 72 kDa. Finally, down-regulation of the membrane receptors following prolonged treatment with the agonist carbamylcholine was assessed by means of the hydrophilic antagonist N-methylscopolamine.