Much has been learned from studies of Limulus photoreceptors about the role of the circadian clock and light in the removal of photosensitive membrane. However, little is known in this animal about mechanisms regulating photosensitive membrane renewal, including the synthesis of proteins in, and associated with, the photosensitive membrane. To begin to understand renewal, this study examines diurnal changes in the levels of mRNAs encoding opsin, the integral membrane protein component of visual pigment, and the relative roles of light and the circadian clock in producing these changes. We show that at least two distinct opsin genes encoding very similar proteins are expressed in both the lateral and ventral eyes, and that during the day and night in the lateral eye, the average level of mRNA encoding opsinl is consistently higher than that encoding opsin2. Northern blot assays showed further that total opsin mRNA in the lateral eyes of animals maintained under natural illumination increases during the afternoon (9 & 12 h after sunrise) in the light and falls at night in the dark. This diurnal change occurs whether or not the eyes receive input from the circadian clock, but it is eliminated in eyes maintained in the dark. Thus, it is regulated by light and darkness, not by the circadian clock, with light stimulating an increase in opsin mRNA levels. The rise in opsin mRNA levels observed under natural illumination was seasonal; it occurred during the summer but not the spring and fall. However, a significant increase in opsin mRNA levels could be achieved in the fall by exposing lateral eyes to 3 h of natural illumination followed by 9 h of artificial light. The diurnal regulation of opsin mRNA levels contrasts sharply with the circadian regulation of visual arrestin mRNA levels (Battelle et al., 2000). Thus, in Limulus, distinctly different mechanisms regulate the levels of mRNA encoding two proteins critical for the photoresponse.