Dose-response curves for activation of excitatory amino acid receptors on mouse embryonic hippocampal neurons in culture were recorded for 15 excitatory amino acids, including the L-isomers of glutamate, aspartate, and a family of endogenous sulfur amino acids. In the presence of 3 microM glycine, with no extracellular Mg, micromolar concentrations of 11 of these amino acids produced selective activation of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. L-Glutamate was the most potent NMDA agonist (EC50 2.3 microM) and quinolinic acid the least potent (EC50 2.3 mM). Dose-response curves were well fit by the logistic equation, or by a model with 2 independent agonist binding sites. The mean limiting slope of log-log plots of NMDA receptor current versus agonist concentration (1.93) suggests that a 2-site model is appropriate. There was excellent correlation between agonist EC50S determined in voltage clamp experiments and KdS determined for NMDA receptor binding (Olverman et al., 1988). With no added glycine, and 1 mM extracellular Mg, responses to NMDA were completely blocked; responses to kainate and quisqualate were unchanged. Under these conditions, glutamate and the sulfur amino acids activated a rapidly desensitizing response, similar to that evoked by micromolar concentrations of quisqualate and AMPA, but mM concentrations of L- aspartate, homoquinolinic acid, and quinolinic acid failed to elicit a non-NMDA receptor-mediated response. Except for L-glutamate (EC50 480 microM), the low potency of the sulfur amino acids prevented the study of complete dose-response curves for the rapidly desensitizing response at quisqualate receptors. Small-amplitude nondesensitizing quisqualate receptor responses were activated by much lower concentrations of all quisqualate receptor agonists. Full dose-response curves for the nondesensitizing response were obtained for 9 amino acids; L-glutamate was the most potent endogenous agonist (EC50 19 microM). Domoate (EC50 13 microM) and kainate (EC50 143 microM) activated large-amplitude, nondesensitizing responses.