We used radioligand binding techniques and measurement of beta-agonist-mediated positive inotropic responses in isolated cardiac tissue to examine beta-adrenergic-receptor subpopulations in nonfailing and failing human left and right ventricular myocardium. In tissue derived from 48 human hearts the receptor subtypes identified in nonfailing ventricle by radioligand binding were beta 1 (77%) and beta 2 (23%), with no evidence of an "atypical" beta-adrenergic receptor. In failing left ventricle the beta 1:beta 2 ratio was markedly different, i.e., 60:38. This decrease in the beta 1 proportion and increase in the beta 2 proportion in the failing ventricles were due to a 62%, "selective" down-regulation of the beta 1 subpopulation, with little or no change in beta 2 receptors. In muscle bath experiments in isolated trabeculae derived from nonfailing and failing right ventricles, both beta 1- and beta 2-adrenergic receptors were coupled to a positive inotropic response. In nonfailing myocardium, beta 1 responses predominated, as the selective beta 1 agonist denopamine produced a response that was 66% of the total contractile response of isoproterenol. In heart failure the beta 1 component was markedly decreased, while the beta 2 component was not significantly diminished. Moreover, in heart failure the beta 2 component increased in prominence, as the contractile response to the selective beta 2 agonist zinterol increased from a minority (39%) to a majority (60%) of the total response generated by isoproterenol. We conclude that failing human ventricular myocardium contains a relatively high proportion of beta 2 receptors, due to selective down-regulation of beta 1 receptors. As a result, in the failing human heart the beta 2-receptor subpopulation is a relatively important mediator of inotropic support in response to nonselective beta-agonist stimulation and is available for inotropic stimulation by selective beta 2 agonists.