The detection of osmotic stimuli is essential for all organisms, yet few osmoreceptive proteins are known, none of them in vertebrates. By employing a candidate-gene approach based on genes encoding members of the TRP superfamily of ion channels, we cloned cDNAs encoding the vanilloid receptor-related osmotically activated channel (VR-OAC) from the rat, mouse, human, and chicken. This novel cation-selective channel is gated by exposure to hypotonicity within the physiological range. In the central nervous system, the channel is expressed in neurons of the circumventricular organs, neurosensory cells responsive to systemic osmotic pressure. The channel also occurs in other neurosensory cells, including inner-ear hair cells, sensory neurons, and Merkel cells.