Extracellular ATP and UTP produced a rapid accumulation of inositol phosphates in human airway epithelial cells (CF/T43). The order of agonist potencies for a series of nucleotide analogues differed markedly from that of the classically described P2x- or P2y-purinergic receptors. UTP was the most potent agonist and was fully efficacious; ATP and adenosine-5'-O-(3-thiotriphosphate) were also full agonists. In contrast, 2-methylthio-ATP, adenosine-5'-O-(2-thiodiphosphate) and alpha,beta-methylene-ATP were without effect. ADP and UDP had little or no effect at concentrations as high as 100 microM, and deoxyribose and dideoxyribose compounds were inactive. The effects of ATP and UTP were not additive, whereas bradykinin- or histamine-stimulated inositol phosphate production was additive with the effects of ATP or UTP. Preincubation of cells with either UTP or ATP resulted in a parallel loss of responsiveness to both agonists. Desensitization was specific for the response to nucleotides, because no ATP- or UTP-induced effect on the response to histamine or bradykinin was observed. Pertussis toxin treatment of CF/T43 cells produced a 30-40% decrease in the response to ATP or UTP, which correlated with the ADP-ribosylation of 41- and 43-kDa proteins. Bradykinin and histamine responses were not modified by pertussis toxin. Guanine nucleotides had little effect on the inositol phosphate response in intact CF/T43 cells at concentrations below 100 microM. However, in streptolysin-O-permeabilized cells GTP-gamma S produced a concentration-dependence activation of inositol phosphate formation. UTP or ATP had little effect in permeabilized cells in the absence of guanine nucleotides but markedly increased inositol phosphate formation in the presence of guanine nucleotides. Taken together, these results suggest that UTP and ATP activate a 5'-nucleotide receptor on CF/T43 cells that is distinct from the classically defined P2x- and P2y-purinergic receptors. Activation of phospholipase C by this receptor involves, at least in part, a guanine nucleotide-binding regulatory protein.