The functional effects of long-term activation of beta-adrenoceptors were investigated by measuring adenylyl cyclase activity, cyclic AMP accumulation and cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase activity in CHW and L cells expressing either human beta 2- or beta 3-adrenoceptors. Pre-incubation of CHW and L cells expressing beta 2-adrenoceptors with 10 microM isoprenaline for 24 h produced a marked reduction in the total receptor number and dramatically reduced the capacity of the receptor to stimulate adenylyl cyclase maximally. In contrast, the ability of beta 3-adrenoceptors number was observed in L but not in CHW cells. Maximal levels of intracellular cyclic AMP concentrations were reached during the first hour of receptor activation with isoprenaline in all four cell lines. In the absence of phosphodiesterase inhibitors, cyclic AMP decreased to basal levels within 24 h of continuous stimulation. This phenomenon occurred more rapidly in cells expressing the beta 2- than the beta 3-adrenoceptors. These results confirm that, at the level of adenylyl cyclase stimulation and cyclic AMP accumulation, the beta 3-adrenoceptor is more resistant than the beta 2-adrenoceptor to long-term desensitization. However, when cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase activity was considered, a 24 h stimulation of beta 2- and when cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase activity was considered, a 24 h stimulation of beta 2- and beta 3-adrenoceptor expressing cells led to the desensitization of the kinase in L but not in CHW cells. In conclusion, long-term desensitization may have distinct functional effects on cell signalling depending on the receptor subtype and the cell type considered. These findings might have practical implications for future strategies involving long-term therapies with receptor agonists.