Arrestins play an important role in quenching signal transduction initiated by G protein-coupled receptors. To explore the specificity of arrestin-receptor interaction, we have characterized the ability of various wild-type arrestins to bind to rhodopsin, the beta 2-adrenergic receptor (beta 2AR), and the m2 muscarinic cholinergic receptor (m2 mAChR). Visual arrestin was found to be the most selective arrestin since it discriminated best between the three different receptors tested (highest binding to rhodopsin) as well as between the phosphorylation and activation state of the receptor (> 10-fold higher binding to the phosphorylated light-activated form of rhodopsin compared to any other form of rhodopsin). While beta-arrestin and arrestin 3 were also found to preferentially bind to the phosphorylated activated form of a given receptor, they only modestly discriminated among the three receptors tested. To explore the structural characteristics important in arrestin function, we constructed a series of truncated and chimeric arrestins. Analysis of the binding characteristics of the various mutant arrestins suggests a common molecular mechanism involved in determining receptor binding selectivity. Structural elements that contribute to arrestin binding include: 1) a C-terminal acidic region that serves a regulatory role in controlling arrestin binding selectivity toward the phosphorylated and activated form of a receptor, without directly participating in receptor interaction; 2) a basic N-terminal domain that directly participates in receptor interaction and appears to serve a regulatory role via intramolecular interaction with the C-terminal acidic region; and 3) two centrally localized domains that are directly involved in determining receptor binding specificity and selectivity. A comparative structure-function model of all arrestins and a kinetic model of beta-arrestin and arrestin 3 interaction with receptors are proposed.