Cyclic AMP (cAMP) is one of the intracellular messengers that mediate odorant signal transduction in vertebrate olfactory cilia. Therefore, the diffusion coefficient of cAMP in olfactory cilia is an important factor in the transduction of the odorous signal. We have employed the excised cilium preparation from the grass frog (Rana pipiens) to measure the cAMP diffusion coefficient. In this preparation an olfactory cilium is drawn into a patch pipette and a gigaseal is formed at the base of the cilium. Subsequently the cilium is excised, allowing bath cAMP to diffuse into the cilium and activate the cyclic nucleotide-gated channels on the plasma membrane. In order to estimate the cAMP diffusion coefficient, we analyzed the kinetics of the currents elicited by step changes in the bath cAMP concentration in the absence of cAMP hydrolysis. Under such conditions, the kinetics of the cAMP-activated currents has a simple dependence on the diffusion coefficient. From the analysis we have obtained a cAMP diffusion coefficient of 2.7 +/- 0.2. 10(-6) cm2 s-1 for frog olfactory cilia. This value is similar to the expected value in aqueous solution, suggesting that there are no significant diffusional barriers inside olfactory cilia. At cAMP concentrations higher than 5 microM, diffusion slowed considerably, suggesting the presence of buffering by immobile cAMP binding sites. A plausible physiological function of such buffering sites would be to prolong the response of the cell to strong stimuli.