Affinities and efficacies of chemically diverse ligands--some of them used as clinical agents--were examined, employing [3H]RX821,002 and [35S]GTPgammaS binding assays, respectively, at human (h) cloned, halpha(2A), halpha(2B) and halpha(2C) adrenoceptors (AR) expressed in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells. As compared to noradrenaline (NA, efficacy defined as 100%), the majority of the 13 agonists tested generally behaved as partial agonists. Amongst 18 antagonists, pK(B) and pK(i) values, which were highly correlated for each alpha(2)-AR subtype, failed to reveal any strikingly selective agents. Inverse agonist properties were not detected for any antagonist, consistent with a lack of constitutive activity suggested by the monophasic inhibition of [35S]GTPgammaS binding by GTPgammaS. These data should facilitate interpretation of experimental and clinical actions of adrenergic agonists. Moreover, they emphasize the continuing need for alpha(2)-AR subtype-selective antagonists in order to define further the roles and therapeutic relevance of halpha(2A)-, halpha(2B)-, and halpha(2C)-AR.