Plants have developed strategies to circumvent limitations in water supply through the adjustment of stomatal aperture in relation to the photosynthetic capacity (water-use efficiency). The CO2 sensor of guard cells, reporting on the metabolic status of the photosynthetic tissue, is, however, as yet unknown. We elucidated whether extracellular malate has the capability to serve as a signal metabolite in regulating the membrane properties of guard cells. Patch-clamp studies showed that slight variations in the external malate concentration induced major alterations in the voltage-dependent activity of the guard cell anion channel (GCAC1). Superfusion of guard cell protoplasts with malate solutions in the physiological range caused the voltage-gate to shift towards hyperpolarized potentials (Km(mal) = 0.4 mM elicits a 38 mV shift). The selectivity sequence of the anion channel NO3- (4.2) > or = I- (3.9) > Br- (1.9) > Cl- (1) >> mal (0.1) indicates that malate is able to permeate GCAC1. The binding site for shifting the gate is, however, located on the extracellular face of the channel since cytoplasmic malate proved ineffective. Single-channel analysis indicates that extracellular malate affects the voltage-dependent mean open time rather than the unitary conductance of GCAC1. In contrast to malate the rise in the extracellular Cl- concentration increases the unit conductance of the anion efflux channel. We suggest that stomata sense changes in the intercellular CO2 concentration and thus the photosynthetic activity of the mesophyll via feedback regulation of anion efflux from guard cells through malate-sensitive GCAC1.