Intracellular recording techniques have been used to provide information on the identity of excitatory transmitters released at synapses formed between dorsal root ganglion (DRG) and spinal cord neurones in two in vitro preparations. Explants of embryonic rat DRG were added to dissociated cultures of embryonic dorsal horn neurones and synaptic potentials recorded intracellularly from dorsal horn neurones after DRG explant stimulation. More than 80% of dorsal horn neurones received at least one fast, DRG-evoked, monosynaptic input. In the presence of high divalent cation concentrations (5 mmol l-1 Ca2+, 3 mmol l-1 Mg2+) the acidic amino acid receptor agonists, L-glutamate, kainate (KA) and quisqualate (QUIS) excited all dorsal horn neurones which received a monosynaptic DRG neurone input, whereas L-aspartate and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) had little or no action. 2-Amino-5-phosphonovalerate (APV), a selective NMDA receptor antagonist, was relatively ineffective at antagonizing DRG-evoked synaptic potentials and L-glutamate-evoked responses. In contrast, kynurenate was found to be a potent antagonist of amino acid-evoked responses and of synaptic transmission at all DRG-dorsal horn synapses examined. The blockade of synaptic transmission by kynurenate appeared to result from a postsynaptic action on dorsal horn neurones. Intracellular recordings from motoneurones in new-born rat spinal cord were used to study the sensitivity of the Ia excitatory postsynaptic potential (EPSP) to antagonists of excitatory amino acids. Superfusion of the spinal cord with APV did not inhibit the Ia EPSP but did suppress later, polysynaptic components of the afferent-evoked response. Kynurenate was a potent and selective inhibitor of the Ia EPSP, acting via a postsynaptic mechanism. These findings indicate that L-glutamate, or a glutamate-like compound, but not L-aspartate, is likely to be the predominant excitatory transmitter that mediates fast excitatory postsynaptic potentials at primary afferent synapses with both dorsal horn neurones and motoneurones.