Mutations in the genes encoding two proteins of the retinal rod phototransduction cascade, opsin and the beta subunit of rod cGMP phosphodiesterase, cause retinitis pigmentosa (RP) in some families. Here we report defects in a third member of this biochemical pathway in still other patients with this disease. We screened 94 unrelated patients with autosomal dominant RP and 173 unrelated patients with autosomal recessive RP for mutations in the gene encoding the alpha subunit of the rod cGMP-gated cation channel. Five mutant sequences cosegregated with disease among four unrelated families with autosomal recessive RP. Two of these were nonsense mutations early in the reading frame (Glu76End and Lys139End) and one was a deletion encompassing most if not all of the transcriptional unit; these three alleles would not be expected to encode a functional channel. The remaining two mutations were a missense mutation (Ser316Phe) and a frameshift [Arg654(1-bp del)] mutation truncating the last 32 aa in the C terminus. The latter two mutations were expressed in vitro and found to encode proteins that were predominantly retained inside the cell instead of being targeted to the plasma membrane. We conclude that the absence or paucity of functional cGMP-gated cation channels in the plasma membrane is deleterious to rod photoreceptors and is an uncommon cause of RP.