BACKGROUND: The long-lasting high-affinity opioid buprenorphine has complex pharmacology, including ceiling effects with respect to analgesia and respiratory depression. Plasma concentrations of the major buprenorphine metabolites norbuprenorphine, buprenorphine-3-glucuronide, and norbuprenorphine-3-glucuronide approximate or exceed those of the parent drug. Buprenorphine glucuronide metabolites pharmacology is undefined. This investigation determined binding and pharmacologic activity of the two glucuronide metabolites, and in comparison with buprenorphine and norbuprenorphine. METHODS: Competitive inhibition of radioligand binding to human μ, κ, and δ opioid and nociceptin receptors was used to determine glucuronide binding affinities for these receptors. Common opiate effects were assessed in vivo in SwissWebster mice. Antinociception was assessed using a tail-flick assay, respiratory effects were measured using unrestrained whole-body plethysmography, and sedation was assessed by inhibition of locomotion measured by open-field testing. RESULTS: Buprenorphine-3-glucuronide had high affinity for human μ (Ki [inhibition constant] = 4.9 ± 2.7 pM), δ (Ki = 270 ± 0.4 nM), and nociceptin (Ki = 36 ± 0.3 μM) but not κ receptors. Norbuprenorphine-3-glucuronide had affinity for human κ (Ki = 300 ± 0.5 nM) and nociceptin (Ki = 18 ± 0.2 μM) but not μ or δ receptors. At the dose tested, buprenorphine-3-glucuronide had a small antinociceptive effect. Neither glucuronide had significant effects on respiratory rate, but norbuprenorphine-3-glucuronide decreased tidal volume. Norbuprenorphine-3- glucuronide also caused sedation. CONCLUSIONS: Both glucuronide metabolites of buprenorphine are biologically active at doses relevant to metabolite exposures, which occur after buprenorphine. Activity of the glucuronides may contribute to the overall pharmacology of buprenorphine.