UTP and ATP induce different membrane voltage responses in rat mesangial cells. Recent studies have indicated that UTP and ATP might modulate mesangial cell function in a different manner. Here we compared the effect of UTP and ATP on membrane voltage (Vm) and ion currents in mesangial cells in primary culture, and we examined whether different nucleotide receptors are involved. In patch-clamp experiments in the fast whole cell configuration, UTP (in contrast to ATP) caused a sustained and concentration-dependent depolarization (half-maximal effective dose, 10(-5) M), but ATP caused only a transient depolarization. During the depolarization, UTP induced a sustained increase of the whole cell conductance (Gm), whereas ATP induced only a transient increase of Gm. When cells were dialyzed with Cs2SO4 and extracellular Cl- was replaced by 145 mM sodium gluconate, addition of UTP or ATP (both 10(-4) M) did not significantly increase Gm. Addition of ATP in the presence of UTP caused an additional depolarization by 5 mV, which was followed by a hyperpolarization by 21 mV. Repetitive application of ATP led to an attenuation of the ATP-induced depolarization. Then, in the presence of ATP, UTP still induced a significant depolarization by 10 mV. Suramine and reactive blue 2 did not inhibit the depolarization induced by UTP, but these inhibited the Vm response to ATP. In microfluorescence experiments, UTP and ATP caused a concentration-dependent increase of the intracellular calcium activity ([Ca2+]i) in mesangial cells. Application of both UTP and ATP had no additive effect on [Ca2+]i. The results suggest that mesangial cells possess, in addition to P2y purinoceptors, separate nucleotide receptors for UTP.