We used tryptophan substitutions to characterize the beta M3 transmembrane domain (betaTM3) of the acetylcholine receptor (AChR). We generated 15 mutants with tryptophan substitutions within the betaTM3 domain, between residues R282W and I296W. The various mutants were injected into Xenopus oocytes, and expression levels were measured by [125I]-alpha-bungarotoxin binding. Expression levels of the M288W, I289W, L290W, and F293W mutants were similar to that of wild type, whereas the other mutants (R282W, Y283W, L284W, F286W, I287W, V291W, A292W, S294W, V295W, and I296W) were expressed at much lower levels than that of wild type. None of these tryptophan mutants produced peak currents larger than that of wild type. Five of the mutants, L284W, F286W, I287W, V295W, and I296W, were expressed at levels <15% of the wild type. I296W had the lowest expression levels and did not display any significant ACh-induced current, suggesting that this position is important for the function and assembly of the AChR. Tryptophan substitution at three positions, L284, V291, and A292, dramatically inhibited AChR assembly and function. A periodicity analysis of the alterations in AChR expression at positions 282-296 of the betaTM3 domain was consistent with an alpha-helical structure. Residues known to be exposed to the membrane lipids, including R282, M285, I289, and F293, were all found in all the upper phases of the oscillatory pattern. Mutants that were expressed at lower levels are clustered on one side of a proposed alpha-helical structure. These results were incorporated into a structural model for the spatial orientation of the TM3 of the Torpedo californica beta subunit.