We studied calcium signaling in a newly described pancreatic cell line, GK-P3, that expresses functional amino acid neurotransmitter receptors. GK-P3 cells express the first strychnine-sensitive glycine receptors reported in a permanent cell line. In addition, GK-P3 cells express alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA)-type glutamate receptors. Both types of amino acid receptors showed electrophysiological and pharmacological behavior similar to their neuronal counterparts. The glycine receptors were permeable to Cl- and blocked by the selective antagonist strychnine. AMPA receptors showed limited permeability to Ca2+, were blocked by 6-cyano-2, 3-dihydroxy-7-nitroquinoxaline, and were potentiated by cyclothiazide. Interestingly, activation of either receptor type increased intracellular Ca2+ measured by digital imaging of Fura-2 fluorescence. These Ca2+ signals were completely blocked by 30 microM La3+, suggesting that the Ca2+ entered the cells largely through voltage-dependent Ca2+ channels. Alterations in the extracellular concentrations of Cl- and/or HCO3- had only marginal effects on glycine-evoked Ca2+ signals. However, increases in intracellular Ca2+ mediated by AMPA receptors were absent when the extracellular Na+ was replaced with an impermeant cation, N-methyl-D-glucamine. We conclude that activation of ligand-gated cation or anion channels depolarize GK-P3 cells sufficiently to activate their voltage-gated Ca2+ channels leading to increases in intracellular Ca2+ concentration. Thus, glycine and glutamate receptors may regulate Ca2+-dependent secretory mechanisms in islet cells by altering the membrane potential of these cells. Our data in GK-P3 cells support the growing weight of evidence for a role of amino acid neurotransmitters in pancreatic islets and introduce strychnine-sensitive glycine receptors as a novel target of amino acid neurotransmitter regulation in islets.