Desensitization to the effects of acetylcholine (ACh) or carbachol (CCh) on ACh-regulated potassium current (IK(ACh)) and the voltage-dependent L-type, calcium current (ICa(L)) was studied in single guinea-pig atrial cells under voltage clamp at room temperature (22-24 degrees C). At a holding potential of -40 mV, CCh (100 microM) activated IK(ACh) repeatedly and reproducibly when applied for 15-s periods with 60-s intervals between applications. Prolonged (10 min) exposure to CCh caused a time-dependent decline of IK(ACh) and a marked reduction (desensitization) of the response to subsequent application of CCh. In the absence of guanosine triphosphate (GTP) in the pipette, only partial resensitization occurred within 20 min after CCh washout. The desensitization to CCh could also be obtained when adenosine (20 microM) was used to activate this current. Therefore, this desensitization must be heterologous. In the presence of isoproterenol (ISO, 3 microM), ICa(L) increased. Acetylcholine continued to inhibit this current at a time when its activation of IK(ACh) had become desensitized. Muscarinic inhibition of ICa(L) eventually desensitized but only after IK(ACh) desensitization had occurred. Because of its heterologous nature, as well as of the ability of ACh to desensitize in the presence of intrapipette dextran, which is reported to inhibit beta-adrenergic receptor kinase (beta ARK), it seems unlikely that beta ARK-dependent phosphorylation of the muscarinic receptor (mAChR) accounted for desensitization. The differential desensitization time course is consistent with the hypothesis that different subunits of Gi, the inhibitory guanine nucleotide binding protein, not only transduce the agonist effects of ACh on IK(ACh) and ICa(L) but are also subjected to different inactivation/regulation processes.