The outer and inner hair cells of the mammalian cochlea perform different functions. In response to changes in membrane potential, the cylindrical outer hair cell rapidly alters its length and stiffness. These mechanical changes, driven by putative molecular motors, are assumed to produce amplification of vibrations in the cochlea that are transduced by inner hair cells. Here we have identified an abundant complementary DNA from a gene, designated Prestin, which is specifically expressed in outer hair cells. Regions of the encoded protein show moderate sequence similarity to pendrin and related sulphate/anion transport proteins. Voltage-induced shape changes can be elicited in cultured human kidney cells that express prestin. The mechanical response of outer hair cells to voltage change is accompanied by a 'gating current', which is manifested as nonlinear capacitance. We also demonstrate this nonlinear capacitance in transfected kidney cells. We conclude that prestin is the motor protein of the cochlear outer hair cell.