The ability of mu-opioid agonists to activate G proteins has been demonstrated by studying the binding of the GTP analogue guanosine-5'-O-(3-[35S]thio)triphosphate ([35S]GTP gamma S) to membranes from the human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cell line. The potent opioid agonist fentanyl caused an approximate doubling of basal [35S]GTP gamma S binding in a naloxone-sensitive manner, confirming this to be an opioid receptor-mediated process. The presence of GDP was necessary to observe this effect. Pretreatment of the cells with pertussis toxin (100 ng/ml, for 24 hr) completely prevented the fentanyl-stimulated increase in [35S]GTP gamma S binding and lowered the basal binding of [35S]GTP gamma S. These latter data suggest an involvement of Gi and/or Go proteins and their activation by added membrane-bound receptors even in the absence of agonist. The order of potency of a series of opioid agonists in stimulating the binding of [35S]GTP gamma S was buprenorphine > cyclazocine = levallorphan > nalorphine > [D-Ala2,MePhe4,Gly-ol5]enkephalin (DAMGO) > fentanyl > morphine > pentazocine. DAMGO, fentanyl, and morphine were full agonists but the remaining compounds showed decreasing levels of intrinsic activity in the order buprenorphine > pentazocine > cyclazocine = nalorphine > levallorphan. The opioid antagonist naloxone was without effect. Under the conditions of the [35S]GTP gamma S assay, binding of agonists was to a high affinity site, indicating that a high agonist affinity state of the mu-opioid receptor is responsible for the observed stimulation of [35S]GTP gamma S binding. The level of [35S]GTP gamma S binding (597 fmol/mg of protein) stimulated by DAMGO was 2-fold greater than the maximal number of mu-opioid agonist binding sites (Bmax) determined using [3H]DAMGO (254 fmol/mg of protein). The opioid agonist-mediated stimulation of [35S]GTP gamma S binding in SH-SY5Y cell membranes thus provides a "functional" measure of agonist occupation of mu-opioid receptors and offers a simple method for the determination of efficacy and intrinsic activity of mu-opioid agonists.