Neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are members of a gene family of ligand-gated transmitter receptors that includes muscle nicotinic receptors, GABAA receptors and glycine receptors. Several lines of evidence indicate that neuronal nicotinic receptors can be made up of only two subunits, an alpha (alpha) subunit which binds ligand, and a non-alpha (n alpha) or beta (beta) subunit. The stoichiometry of each subunit in the functional receptor has been difficult to assess, however. Estimates of the molecular weight of neuronal nicotonic receptor macromolecules suggest that these receptors contain at least four subunits but probably not more than five. We have examined the subunit stoichiometry of the chick neuronal alpha 4/n alpha 1 receptor by first using site-directed mutagenesis to create subunits that confer different single channel properties on the receptor. Co-injection with wild-type and mutant subunits led to the appearance of receptors with wild-type, mutant and hybrid conductances. From the number of hybrid conductances, we could deduce the number of each subunit in the functional receptor.