An excitatory action of l-2-amino-4-phosphonobutanoate (l-AP4), a glutamate analogue, is observed following pre-exposure of tissue to quisqualate. We have studied the mechanism of sensitization of l-AP4 responses by quisqualate in voltage-clamped CA3 pyramidal cells in rat hippocampal slice cultures in the presence of tetrodotoxin. Prior to quisqualate addition, CA3 cells did not respond to l-AP4 (50–1000μM). Following brief application of quisqualate (500 nM for 30 s), l-AP4 (50–200 μM) induced a complex excitatory response which could be obtained for >1 h. l-AP4 caused an ionotropic inward current associated with a conductance increase. This response was in part sensitive to 6-cyano-7-nitro-quinoxaline-2,3-dione (CNQX) and in part sensitive to d-2-amino-5-phosphonovalerate (d-AP5) and Mg2+ ions. At depolarizing potentials, in the presence of CNQX and d-AP5, l-AP4 caused excitation by depressing K+ currents, mimicking the metabotropic action of glutamate. This indicates that the action of l-AP4 is mediated by three different receptor types: N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-isoxazole-4-propionate (AMPA) receptors, and glutamatergic metabotropic receptors. The l-AP4 response persisted in solutions containing low Ca2+ and high Mg2+ concentrations or 100–200 μM Cd2+, suggesting that it is independent of extracellular Ca2+. We were unable to identify any substance other than quisqualate capable of sensitizing the l-AP4 action. This effect also occurred when quisqualate was applied in Ca2+-free solution or in solutions containing low concentrations of Na+ or Cl−. Sensitization of l-AP4 responses by quisqualate was not observed in acutely dissociated pyramidal cells recorded by means of the whole-cell recording mode, although ionotropic quisqualate responses were present. Sensitization was readily reversed by short applications of the endogenous excitatory amino acids glutamate, aspartate and homocysteate at concentrations of 10–100 μM. Our data are consistent with the hypothesis that the excitatory action of l-AP4 results from a Ca2+-independent release of endogenous excitatory amino acids from some presynaptic neuronal or glial site.