The purinergic regulation of ciliary activity was studied using small, continuously superfused explants of human nasal epithelium. The P2Y(2) purinoceptor (P2Y(2)-R) was identified as the major purinoceptor regulating ciliary beat frequency (CBF); UTP (EC(50) = 4.7 microM), ATP, and adenosine-5'-O-(3-thiotriphosphate) elicited similar maximal responses, approximately twofold over baseline. ATP, however, elicited a post-peak sustained plateau in CBF (1.83 +/- 0.1-fold), whereas the post-peak CBF response to UTP declined over 15 min to a low-level plateau (1.36 +/- 0.16-fold). UDP also stimulated ciliary beating, probably via P2Y(6)-R, with a maximal effect approximately one-half that elicited by P2Y(2)-R stimulation. Not indicated were P2Y(1)-R-, P2Y(4)-R-, or P2Y(11)-R-mediated effects. A(2B)-receptor agonists elicited sustained responses in CBF approximately equal to those from UTP/ATP [5'-(N-ethylcarboxamido)adenosine, EC(50) = 0.09 microM; adenosine, EC(50) = 0.7 microM]. Surprisingly, ADP elicited a sustained stimulation in CBF. The ADP effect and the post-peak sustained portion of the ATP response in CBF were inhibited by the A(2)-R antagonist 8-(p-sulfophenyl)theophylline. Hence, ATP affects ciliary activity through P2Y(2)-R and, after an apparent ectohydrolysis to adenosine, through A(2B)AR.