Adenosine receptors are present in platelets, and their activation results in accumulation of cAMP and inhibition of aggregation. The study of platelet adenosine receptors, however, is limited by the impossibility of maintaining these cells in vitro. Human erythroleukemia (HEL) cells express megakaryocytic/platelet markers and have been used as a model to study platelet receptors. Therefore, we sought to determine whether adenosine receptors were present in HEL cells. Adenosine agonists produced an accumulation of cAMP in HEL cells, implying the presence of A2 receptors. Xanthine and nonxanthine adenosine receptor antagonists blocked this effect in a simple competitive manner (Schild analysis). Therefore, both platelets and HEL cells possess A2 adenosine receptors. There were, however, significant differences between them. Adenosine agonists were, in general, less potent in HEL cells, compared with platelets. In particular, the adenosine analog CGS 21680, one of the most potent agonists in platelets, was virtually inactive in HEL cells. The orders of potencies for agonists (and their EC50 values for cAMP production) were 5'-N-ethylcarboxamidoadenosine (0.19 microM) = CGS 21680 (0.18 microM) > (R)-(-)-N6-(2-phenylisopropyl)adenosine (0.5 microM) in platelets and 5'-N-ethylcarboxamidoadenosine (2.4 microM) > (R)-(-)-N6-(2-phenylisopropyl)adenosine (160 microM) > CGS 21680 (1600 microM) in HEL cells. In contrast to the decreased potency of agonists in HEL cells, the antagonist 1,3-dipropyl-8-p-sulfophenylxanthine was more potent in HEL cells, compared with platelets. Based on the striking differences in the rank orders of potencies of agonists and antagonists, we propose that HEL cells and platelets have different subtypes of adenosine A2 receptors. We found CGS 21680 particularly helpful in distinguishing between these receptor subtypes.