A novel adenosine receptor, the A3 receptor, has recently been cloned. We have systematically investigated the hitherto largely unexplored structure-activity relationships (SARs) for binding at A3 receptors, using 125I-N6-2-(4-aminophenyl)ethyladenosine as a radioligand and membranes from Chinese hamster ovary cells stably transfected with the rat A3-cDNA. As is the case for A1 and A2a, receptors, substitutions at the N6 and 5′ positions of adenosine, the prototypic agonist ligand, may yield fairly potent compounds. However, the highest affinity and A3 selectivity is found for N6,5′-disubstituted compounds, in contrast to A1 and A2a receptors. Thus, N6-benzyladenosine-5′-N-ethylcarboxamide is highly potent (Ki, 6.8 nM) and moderately selective (13- and 14-fold versus A1 and A2a). The N6 region of the A3 receptor also appears to tolerate hydrophilic substitutions, in sharp contrast to the other subtypes. Potencies of N6,5′-disubstituted compounds in inhibition of adenylate cyclase via A3 receptors parallel their high affinity in the binding assay. None of the typical xanthine or nonxanthine (A1/A2) antagonists tested show any appreciable affinity for rat A3 receptors. 1,3-Dialkylxanthines did not antagonize the A3 agonist-induced inhibition of adenylate cyclase. A His residue in helix 6 that is absent in A3 receptors but present in A1/A2 receptors may be causal in this respect. In a molecular model for the rat A3 receptor, this mutation, together with an increased bulkiness of residues surrounding the ligand, make antagonist binding unfavorable when compared with a previously developed A1 receptor model. Second, this A3 receptor model predicted similarities with A1 and A2 receptors in the binding requirements for the ribose moiety and that xanthine-7-ribosides would bind to rat A3 receptors. This hypothesis was supported experimentally by the moderate affinity (Ki 6 μM) of 7-riboside of 1,3-dibutylxanthine, which appears to be a partial agonist at rat A3 receptors. The model presented here, which is consistent with the detailed SAR found in this study, may serve to suggest future chemical modification, site-directed mutagenesis, and SAR studies to further define essential characteristics of the ligand-receptor interaction and to develop even more potent and selective A3 receptor ligands.