Vertebrate rod photoreceptors hyperpolarize when illuminated, due to the closing of cation-selective channels in the plasma membrane. The mechanism controlling the opening and closing of these channels is still unclear, however. Both 3',5'-cyclic GMP and Ca2+ ions have been proposed as intracellular messengers for coupling the light activation of the photopigment rhodopsin to channel activity and thus modulating light-sensitive conductance. We have now studied the effects of possible conductance modulators on excised 'inside-out' patches from the plasma membrane of the rod outer segment (ROS), and have found that cyclic GMP acting from the inner side of the membrane markedly increases the cationic conductance of such patches (EC50 30 microM cyclic GMP) in a reversible manner, while Ca2+ is ineffective. The cyclic GMP-induced conductance increase occurs in the absence of nucleoside triphosphates and, hence, is not mediated by protein phosphorylation, but seems rather to result from a direct action of cyclic GMP on the membrane. The effect of cyclic GMP is highly specific; cyclic AMP and 2',3'-cyclic GMP are completely ineffective when applied in millimolar concentrations. We were unable to recognize discrete current steps that might represent single-channel openings and closings modulated by cyclic GMP. Analysis of membrane current noise shows the elementary event to be 3 fA with 110 mM Na+ on both sides of the membrane at a membrane potential of -30 mV. If the initial event is assumed to be the closure of a single cyclic GMP-sensitive channel, this value corresponds to a single-channel conductance of 100 fS. It seems probable that the cyclic GMP-sensitive conductance is responsible for the generation of the rod photoresponse in vivo.