Both M(2) and M(3) muscarinic receptors are expressed in smooth muscle and influence contraction through distinct signaling pathways. M(3) receptors interact with G(q) to trigger phosphoinositide hydrolysis, Ca(2+) mobilization and a direct contractile response. In contrast, M(2) receptors interact with G(i) and G(o) to inhibit adenylyl cyclase and Ca(2+)-activated K(+) channels and to potentiate a Ca(2+)-dependent, nonselective cation conductance. Ultimately, these mechanisms lead to the prediction that the influence of the M(2) receptor on contraction should be conditional upon mobilization of Ca(2+) by another receptor such as the M(3). Mathematical modeling studies of these mechanisms show that the competitive antagonism of a muscarinic response mediated through activation of both M(2) and M(3) receptors should resemble the profile of the directly acting receptor (i.e., the M(3)) and not that of the conditionally acting receptor (i.e., the M(2)). Using a combination of pharmacological and genetic approaches, we have identified two mechanisms for the M(2) receptor in contraction: 1) a high potency inhibition of the relaxation elicited by agents that increase cytosolic cAMP and 2) a low potency potentiation of contractions elicited by the M(3) receptor. The latter mechanism may be involved in muscarinic agonist-mediated heterologous desensitization of smooth muscle, which requires activation of both M(2) and M(3) receptors.