The functional role of the alphaM3 transmembrane domain of the Torpedo nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (AChR) was characterized by performing tryptophan-scanning mutagenesis at 13 positions within alphaM3, from residue M278 through I290. The expression of the mutants in Xenopus oocytes was measured by [(125)I]-alpha-bungarotoxin binding, and ACh receptor function was evaluated by using a two-electrode voltage clamp. Six mutants (L279W, F280W, I283W, V285W, S288W, and I289W) were expressed at lower levels than the wild type. Most of these residues have been proposed to face the interior of the protein. The I286W mutant was expressed at 2.4-fold higher levels than the wild type, and the two lipid-exposed mutations, F284W and S287W, were expressed at similar levels as wild type. Binding assays indicated that the alphaM3 domain can accommodate bulky groups in almost all positions. Three mutations, M282W, V285W, and I289W, caused a loss of receptor function, suggesting that the tryptophan side chains alter the conformational changes required for channel assembly or ion channel function. This loss of function suggests that these positions may be involved in helix-helix contacts that are critical for channel gating. The lipid-exposed mutation F284W enhances the receptor macroscopic response at low ACh concentrations and decreases the EC(50). Taken together, our results suggest that alphaM3 contributes to the gating machinery of the nicotinic ACh receptor and that alphaM3 is comprised of a mixture of two types of helical structures.