Previous studies have indicated that denervation of adult rodent sweat glands results in the loss of secretory responsiveness to muscarinic agonists. To elucidate the molecular basis of this loss, we have characterized the muscarinic cholinergic receptor present in adult rat sweat glands and examined the effects of cholinergic denervation on its properties and expression. When homogenates of gland-rich tissue from adult animals were assayed with [N-methyl-3H]-scopolamine, a high- affinity muscarinic antagonist, the concentration of muscarinic receptors was 301 fmol/mg protein and the affinity was 131 pM. Autoradiographic analysis demonstrated that ligand binding sites were detectable only on glands. In competition studies with well- characterized muscarinic agents, the receptor exhibited typical muscarinic pharmacology. Further investigation with the selective muscarinic antagonists 4-diphenylacetoxy-N-methylpiperidine methiodide, pirenzepine, and AF DX-116 revealed that the sweat gland receptor belongs to the M2 glandular pharmacological subtype. In situ hybridization histochemistry with receptor subtype-specific oligonucleotide probes indicated that rat sweat glands express the m3 molecular receptor subtype. Seven days after sciatic nerve transection, when denervated glands were compared to those on the contralateral unoperated side, there was no significant difference either in the concentration or affinity of muscarinic binding sites or in receptor density or distribution. Furthermore, the molecular subtype and the level of its expression were unchanged. Thus, it appears that muscarinic binding sites and m3 receptor mRNA are present in denervated sweat glands that are unresponsive to muscarinic stimulation. These results suggest that the regulation of responsiveness occurs at a point distal to the expression of muscarinic receptors.