Rotation of the Na(+)-driven flagellar motor of Vibrio alginolyticus was investigated under the influence of inhibitors specific to the motor, amiloride and phenamil. The rotation rate of a single flagellum on a cell stuck to a glass slide was examined using laser dark-field microscopy. In the presence of 50 mM NaCl, the average rotation rate (omega) was about 600 r.p.s. with a standard deviation (sigma omega) of 9% of omega. When omega was decreased to about 200 r.p.s. by the presence of 1.5 mM amiloride, sigma omega increased to 15% of omega. On the other hand, when omega was decreased to about 200 r.p.s. by the addition of 0.6 microM phenamil, a large increase in sigma omega up to 50% of omega, was observed. Similarly large fluctuations were observed at other concentrations of phenamil. These observations suggest that dissociation of phenamil from the motor was much slower than that of amiloride. A very low concentration of phenamil caused a transient but substantial reduction in rotation rate. This might suggest that binding of only a single molecule of phenamil strongly inhibits the torque generation in the flagellar motor.