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BACKGROUND: H2-histamine receptors mediate a wide range of physiological functions extending from stimulation of gastric acid secretion to induction of human promyelocyte differentiation. We have previously cloned the H2-histamine receptor gene and noted that only three amino acids on the receptor were sufficient to define its specificity and selectivity. Despite only modest overall amino acid homology (34% amino acid identity and 57.5% similarity) between the H2-histamine receptor and the receptor for another monoamine, the beta 2-adrenergic receptor, there is remarkable similarity at their critical ligand binding sites. We hypothesized that, if the specificity and selectivity of both receptors are invested in just three amino acids, it should be possible to convert one of the receptors into one that recognizes the ligand of the other by simple mutations at only one or two sites. MATERIAL AND METHODS: We explored the effect of two single mutations in the fifth transmembrane domain of the H2-histamine receptor, which encompasses the sites that determine H2 selectivity. The canine H2 receptor gene was mutated at Asp186 and Gly187 (Asp186 to Ala186 and Gly187 to Ser187) by oligonuceotide directed mutagenesis. The coding region of both the wild-type and mutated H2 receptors was subcloned into the eukaryotic expression vector, CMVneo, and stably transfected into Hepa cells and L cells. The biological activity of histamine and epinephrine on the expressed receptor was examined by measurement of cellular cAMP production and inositol trisphosphate formation. RESULTS: Hepa cells transfected with the Ala186-Ser187 mutant H2 receptor demonstrated a biphasic rise in cAMP in response to epinephrine with an early phase (ED50 approximately 10(-11) M) that could be inhibited by both propranolol and cimetidine. Epinephrine also induced IP3 generation in the same cells, a biological response that is characteristic of activation of the wild-type H2 but not of the beta-adrenergic receptor. L cells transfected with the Ala186-Ser187 mutant H2 receptor also responded to epinephrine in a cimetidine and propranolol inhibitable manner. CONCLUSIONS: We converted the H2-histamine receptor into a bifunctional one that has characteristics of both histamine and adrenergic receptors by two simple mutations. These results support the hypothesis that ligand specificity is determined by only a few key points on a receptor regardless of the structure of the remainder of the molecule. Our studies have important implications on the design of pharmacological agents targeted for action at physiological receptors.