Capsaicin, the main pungent ingredient in 'hot' chili peppers, elicits burning pain by activating specific (vanilloid) receptors on sensory nerve endings. The cloned capsaicin receptor (VR1) is a nonselective cation channel with six transmembrane domains that is structurally related to a member of the TRP (transient receptor potential) channel family. VR1 is activated not only by capsaicin but also by increases in temperature that reach the noxious range (>43 degrees C). Protons potentiate the effects of capsaicin or heat on VR1 activity by markedly decreasing the capsaicin concentration or temperature at which the channel is activated. Furthermore, a significant increase in proton concentration (pH <5.9) can evoke channel activity at room temperature. The analysis of single-channel currents in excised membrane patches suggests that capsaicin, heat or protons gate VR1 directly. VR1 can therefore be viewed as a molecular integrator of chemical and physical stimuli that elicit pain. VRL-1, a VR1 homologue, is not activated by vanilloids or protons, but can be activated by elevation in ambient temperature exceeding 52 degrees C. These findings indicate that related ion channels may account for thermal responsiveness over a range of noxious temperature.