The sulfhydryl groups of the three cysteines in bovine arrestin react with DTNB very slowly (over a period of several hours). In the presence of the synthetic phosphopeptide comprising the fully phosphorylated carboxyl-terminal 19 amino acids of bovine rhodopsin, the reactivity of one of the sulfhydryls was enhanced while that of another was greatly reduced. Since this synthetic peptide was shown to activate arrestin with respect to its binding to unphosphorylated, light-activated rhodopsin, the reactivity of the sulfhydryl groups of a constitutively active R175Q arrestin mutant was examined. All three of the sulfhydryl groups of the mutant arrestin R175Q reacted rapidly with DTNB, but not as rapidly as with SDS-denatured arrestin. The arrestin mutant R175Q bound to light-activated, unphosphorylated rhodopsin in ROS disk membranes. The arrestin mutant R175Q also inhibited the light-activated PDE activity with an IC50 of 1.3 microM under the experimental conditions that were used. These data indicate that each of these forms of arrestin is a different conformation. The activated conformation of arrestin that binds to phosphorylated rhodopsin in vivo may be yet another conformation. We conclude that arrestin is a flexible molecule that is able to attain several different conformations, all of which are able to attain the activated functional state of arrestin.