Sensory transduction in vertebrate photoreceptors and olfactory sensory neurons is mediated by cyclic nucleotide-gated (CNG) channels that conduct mono- and divalent cations. Ca2+ entering the cell through CNG channels intimately controls signaling pathways by regulating several key enzymes. Cloned CNG channels from photoreceptors and olfactory sensory neurons profoundly differ in their relative Ca2+ permeability, their blockage by external divalent cations, and the fraction of current carried by Ca2+. In particular, CNG channels from cone photoreceptors conduct significantly more Ca2+ than those from rod photoreceptors. Furthermore, the current through the olfactory CNG channel is entirely carried by Ca2+ at approximately 3 mM extracellular Ca2+. These results suggest that a major function of CNG channels is to provide a pathway for Ca2+ entry.