The chicken pineal gland is directly photosensitive, with light causing an inhibition of melatonin synthesis. A possible role of phosphodiesterase 6 (PDE6, the primary effector of retinal phototransduction) in mediating this response was investigated. RT-PCR, DNA sequencing and northern blots revealed the presence of RNA encoding both catalytic and regulatory subunits of PDE6 in the chicken pineal gland. Both rod and cone forms of PDE6 subunits mRNA were detected. The concentration of the transcripts encoding PDE6 catalytic subunits peaked at night. Western blot analysis of chicken pineal proteins with an antibody directed against the catalytic subunits of bovine rod PDE6 identified a single immunoreactive protein of 97 kDa. Anion exchange chromatography of chicken pineal soluble proteins revealed a peak of PDE6 activity that accounted for about 30% of cyclic GMP-hydrolysis. In cultured chick pineal glands, arylalkylamine N-acetyltransferase (AA-NAT), the rate-limiting enzyme of melatonin synthesis, was protected from inhibition by light when selective PDE5/6 inhibitors (zaprinast, DMPPO) were added to the culture medium. PDE5/6 inhibitors did not affect AA-NAT activity in the dark. In contrast, a general PDE inhibitor (IBMX) increased AA-NAT in a light-independent manner. Together, the data indicate that rod and cone forms of PDE6 are expressed in chick pineal cells and that this enzyme plays a role in the inhibition of melatonin synthesis by light.