The mechanism of adrenergically activated calcium signalling in isolated murine brown preadipocytes (stromal-vascular fraction) was studied with Fura-2. Norepinephrine (NE) generated in preadipocytes a slow Ca(2+)-response ( approximately 10 nM/min) without a burst and a maximum, whereas in mature brown adipocytes, the quick burst reached 1.5 microM [Ca(2+)](i). Thapsigargin, which is known to discharge Ca(2+) ions from the IP(3)-sensitive stores, initiated a huge capacitative calcium entry in mature brown adipocytes but failed to stimulate a response in preadipocytes. The beta-selective antagonist nadolol almost completely prevented the effect of NE on [Ca(2+)](i), while the antagonist of alpha-adrenoceptors phentolamine caused only a approximately 25% reduction of the cellular response. Forskolin or the cell-permeable Br-cAMP caused [Ca(2+)](i) rise, which were even higher than with NE. The protein kinase A (PKA) inhibitor N-[2-(p-bromocynnamylamino)ethyl]-5-isoquinolinesulfonamide (H-89) reduced and the phosphodiesterase inhibitors 3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine (IBMX), N-cyclohexyl-N-(2-hydroxyethyl)-4-(6-(1,2-dihydro-2-oxoquinolyloxy))butyramide (OPC-3911), 4-(3-butoxy-4-methoxybenzyl)-2-imidazolidone (Ro 20-1724) or the protein phosphatase inhibitor okadaic acid enhanced the NE-, isoproterenol- or forskolin-initiated cellular calcium responses. It was concluded that (i) brown preadipocytes lacked a trigger mechanism of initiation of [Ca(2+)](i) rises and (ii) the cAMP- and protein kinase A-mediated phosphorylation played an important role in the beta-adrenoceptor-initiated calcium signalling in these cells. All these features distinguish brown adipocyte precursors from differentiated brown adipocytes, where calcium signalling is initiated exclusively via alpha(1)-adrenoceptors and the trigger mechanism.