Whole cell voltage and current clamp recordings were obtained from third order neurons isolated from the salamander retina. Using cross desensitization, the structure-function relationship of short chain amino acids on the glycine receptor were examined. L-Serine, L-alanine, beta-alanine and taurine all cross desensitized with glycine, but did not show significant cross desensitization with GABA. This indicates that these amino acids act at the glycine receptor. The order of potency was glycine >> beta-alanine > taurine >> L-alanine > L-serine. TAG, a reputed selective taurine antagonist, was equally effective in blocking taurine and glycine currents. There is no evidence for distinct receptors for taurine. Amino acids with larger moieties at the alpha carbon, such as threonine and valine, produced inactive ligands. Placing a methyl group on the amine of glycine or esterification of the carboxyl group also greatly reduced activity. Based on these modifications of the glycine molecule, it appears that selectivity at the glycine receptor results in part from steric restrictions at all three sites in the glycine chain. The steric interference is most critical at the carboxyl and amino ends, and less limiting at the alpha carbon. Doses of L-serine that had only slight effects in voltage clamp experiments, nevertheless produced large effects in current clamp experiments. This indicates that several endogenous amino acids can have significant effects on membrane voltage, even when their shunting activity may be small. High concentrations of agonists produced desensitization in the voltage clamp records, but there was little evidence of desensitization in the current clamp experiments. These results indicate that several endogenous amino acids can activate the glycine receptor, but there is no evidence for a discrete receptor for taurine, beta-alanine, L-alanine or L-serine. Since all these endogenous amino acids have similar amino and acid terminals, reduction in potency results from steric interference around the alpha carbon. This graded potency may have functional significance in mediating inhibition.