PURPOSE: To determine the intracellular signaling pathways that vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) uses to stimulate high molecular weight glycoconjugate secretion from cultured rat conjunctival goblet cells. METHODS: Goblet cells from rat bulbar and forniceal conjunctiva were grown in organ culture. Presence and localization of VIP receptors (VPAC1 and 2) were determined by RT-PCR, immunofluorescence microscopy and Western blot analysis. Intracellular [Ca(2+)] ([Ca(2+)]i) was measured using fura-2. Extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK)-1/2 activity was determined by Western blot analysis. High molecular weight glycoconjugate secretion was measured with an enzyme-linked lectin assay on cultured goblet cells that were serum-starved for 2 hours before stimulation with VIP, VPAC1-, or VPAC2-specific agonists. Inhibitors were added 30 minutes prior to VIP. Activation of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) was measured by immunoprecipitation using an antibody against pTyr followed by Western blot analysis with an antibody against EGFR. RESULTS: Both VIP receptors were present in rat conjunctiva and cultured goblet cells. VIP- and VPAC-specific agonists increased [Ca(2+)]i and secretion in a concentration-dependent manner. VIP also increased ERK1/2 activity, VIP-stimulated increase in [Ca(2+)]i. Secretion, but not ERK1/2 activity, was inhibited by the protein kinase A inhibitor, H89. VIP-stimulated secretion was inhibited by siRNA for ERK2 but not by siRNA for EGFR. VIP did not increase the phosphorylation of the EGFR. CONCLUSIONS: In conclusion, in cultured rat conjunctival goblet cells, VPAC1 and 2 receptors are functional. VIP stimulates a cAMP-dependent increase in [Ca(2+)]i and glycoconjugate secretion, but not ERK1/2 activation. VIP does not activate with EGFR.