The melanocortin (MC) gamma3-MSH is believed to signal through the MC3 receptor. We showed that it induces a sustained increase in intracellular free calcium levels ([Ca(2+)](i)) in a subpopulation of pituitary cells. Most of the cells responding to gamma3-MSH express more than one pituitary hormone mRNA. The effect of gamma3-MSH is blocked by SHU9119, a MC3R and MC4R antagonist, in only 50% of the responsive cells, suggesting that in half of these cells the mediating receptor is not the MC3R. Low picomolar doses of gamma3-MSH increase [Ca(2+)](i) in the growth hormone (GH)- and prolactin (PRL)-secreting GH3 cell line. gamma2-MSH and alpha-MSH display a similar effect. SHU9119 does not affect the gamma3-MSH-induced [Ca(2+)](i) response. MTII, a potent synthetic agonist of the MC3R, MC4R, and MC5R, also shows no or low potency in increasing [Ca(2+)](i). By means of RT-PCR, the mRNA of the MC2R, MC3R, and MC4R receptors is undetectable. Experiments testing gamma2-MSH analogues with single alanine replacements show that, unlike the classic MCRs, the His(5)-Phe(6)-Arg(7)-Trp(8) sequence in gamma2-MSH is not a core sequence for activating the gamma-MSH receptor in GH3 cells, whereas Met(3) is essential. Low nanomolar doses of gamma-MSH increase intracellular cAMP levels. Blockade of protein kinase A abolishes the [Ca(2+)](i) responses to gamma3-MSH. gamma2-MSH increases binding of [S(35)]GTPgammaS to membrane preparations of GH3 cells. The pharmacological characteristics of gamma-MSH peptides and analogues on [Ca(2+)](i) and the signal-transduction pathways present strong evidence for the expression of a hitherto uncharacterized gamma-MSH receptor in GH3 cells, belonging to the G protein-coupled receptor family.