Muscarinic K+ channels in inside-out patches of atrial cells from guinea pig or rabbit can be activated by Mg(2+)-ATP in the absence of acetylcholine and GTP or GDP. The ATP-dependent activation involves a phosphorylation and is postulated to be due to the association of a membrane-bound nucleoside diphosphate kinase (NDPK) with the G protein GK: direct phosphorylation of the GK-bound GDP into GTP, catalyzed by NDPK, would result in activation of the G protein and, hence, activation of the channels. The aim of this study was to identify the presence of NDPK activity in atrial membranes by investigating the phosphate transfer between tritium-labeled nucleotides. We show that frog, guinea pig, and human atrial membranes contain a substantial NDPK activity since they catalyze the conversion from [3H]GDP+nucleoside triphosphate (NTP or NTP gamma S) to [3H]GTP (or [3H]GTP gamma S), from [3H]ADP+NTP to [3H]ATP, and from [3H]GTP+nucleoside diphosphate (NDP) to [3H]GDP. The phosphate transfer rates for the [3H]GDP+ATP to [3H]GTP conversion are 1.8, 0.5, and 2.4 mumol inorganic phosphate formation/mg per 10 minutes at 37 degrees C in frog, guinea pig, and human, respectively. The order of substrate efficiency for different NTPs was ATP greater than ITP approximately equal to GTP greater than UTP greater than CTP, which parallels the efficiency of these nucleotides in their activation of the muscarinic K+ channels. Addition of other nucleotides blocked the transphosphorylation reaction, indicating that the NTP-NDP conversion mechanism is aspecific, as is expected for an NDPK-catalyzed reaction. In conclusion, the data support the concept of NDPK involvement in the atrial muscarinic signal transduction cascade.