Selective agonists for D1-like and D2-like dopamine receptors can interact synergistically to enhance each other's actions on locomotion and behavior in experimental animals. Clinically, the combination of the D2 agonist bromocriptine with L-dopa (which has pronounced D1 effects) is a highly effective treatment for Parkinson's disease. The mechanisms underlying this important receptor interaction are poorly understood and are the subject of intense study in vitro. In rats with unilateral 6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA) lesions of the nigrostriatal pathway, D1-selective (but not D2-selective) dopamine agonists produce a marked increase in expression of the immediate-early gene c-fos in the striatum ipsilateral to the 6-OHDA lesion. In the experiments reported here, we have used this in vivo model to explore the possibility that combinations of D1-selective and D2-selective agonists might have effects on c-fos transcription that are different from those exhibited by D1 or D2 agonists administered alone. We examined the effects of the D1-selective agonist SKF-38393 and the D2-selective agonist quinpirole (LY 171555) on the expression of Fos-like protein and c-fos mRNA in the caudoputamen and made parallel behavioral observations in the same animals. A low dose of SKF-38393 produced little contraversive rotation and little induction of Fos-like immunoreactivity in the striatum. A low dose of quinpirole elicited contralateral rotation but little or no induction of Fos-like immunoreactivity in the caudoputamen; there was, however, induction of Fos in the globus pallidus ipsilateral to the 6-OHDA lesion. Combination of the low dose of SKF-38393 and quinpirole produced a synergistic effect on rotation and elicited, in the dopamine-depleted caudoputamen, a striking pattern of Fos-like protein expression in which Fos-positive neurons were concentrated in striosomes and in the dorsolateral caudoputamen. Northern blot analysis showed that c-fos mRNA was expressed following combined agonist treatment but was not detectable after the single-agonist treatments. Both the contraversive rotation and the induction of Fos-like immunoreactivity were blocked by the preadministration of the D1-preferring antagonist SCH-23390 and the D2-selective antagonist raclopride in combination. Pretreatment with the glutamate NMDA receptor antagonist MK-801 also blocked the induction of Fos-like immunoreactivity, and it reversed the rotation. These findings suggest a D1/D2 synergistic mechanism that involves the participation of D1-responsive striatonigral and D2-responsive striatopallidal output pathways, and that is sensitive to glutamatergic modulation.