Assembly of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (AChR) subunits was investigated using mouse fibroblast cell lines stably expressing either Torpedo (All-11) or mouse (AM-4) alpha, beta, gamma, and delta AChR subunits. Both cell lines produce fully functional cell surface AChRs. We find that two independent treatments, lower temperature and increased intracellular cAMP can increase AChR expression by increasing the efficiency of subunit assembly. Previously, we showed that the rate of degradation of individual subunits was decreased as the temperature was lowered and that Torpedo AChR expression was acutely temperature sensitive, requiring temperatures lower than 37 degrees C. We find that Torpedo AChR assembly efficiency increases 56-fold as the temperature is decreased from 37 to 20 degrees C. To determine how much of this is a temperature effect on degradation, mouse AChR assembly efficiencies were determined and found to be only approximately fourfold more efficient at 20 than at 37 degrees C. With reduced temperatures, we can achieve assembly efficiencies of Torpedo AChR in fibroblasts of 20-35%. Mouse AChR in muscle cells is also approximately 30% and we obtain approximately 30% assembly efficiency of mouse AChR in fibroblasts (with reduced temperatures, this value approaches 100%). Forskolin, an agent which increases intracellular cAMP levels, increased subunit assembly efficiencies twofold with a corresponding increase in cell surface AChR. Pulse-chase experiments and immunofluorescence microscopy indicate that oligomer assembly occurs in the ER and that AChR oligomers remain in the ER until released to the cell surface. Once released, AChRs move rapidly through the Golgi membrane to the plasma membrane. Forskolin does not alter the intracellular distribution of AChR. Our results indicate that cell surface expression of AChR can be regulated at the level of subunit assembly and suggest a mechanism for the cAMP-induced increase in AChR expression.