Receptor-operated Ca2+ entry has been proposed as a signalling mechanism in many cells. Receptor-operated Ca2+ channels (ROCs) were first postulated in smooth muscle by Bolton, van Breemen and Somlyo and Somlyo, but recordings of directly ligand-gated Ca2+ current are lacking. Here we describe receptor-operated Ca2+ current evoked in arterial smooth muscle cells by ATP, a sympathetic neurotransmitter. ATP activates channels with approximately 3:1 selectivity for Ca2+ over Na+ at near-physiological concentrations and with a unitary conductance of approximately 5 pS in 110 mM Ca2+ or Ba2+. The channels can be opened even at very negative potentials and resist inhibition by cadmium or nifedipine, unlike voltage-gated Ca2+ channels; they are not blocked by Mg2+, unlike NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate)-activated channels; they are directly activated by ligand, without involvement of readily diffusible second messengers, unlike cation channels in neutrophils and T lymphocytes. Thus, the ATP-activated channels provide a distinct mechanism for excitatory synaptic current and Ca2+ entry in smooth muscle.