Light triggers the phototransduction cascade by activating the visual pigment rhodopsin (Rho --> Rho*). Phosphorylation of Rho* by rhodopsin kinase (RK) is necessary for the fast recovery of sensitivity after intense illumination. Ca2+ ions, acting through Ca2+-binding proteins, have been implicated in the desensitization of phototransduction. One such protein, recoverin, has been proposed to regulate RK activity contributing to adaptation to background illumination in retinal photoreceptor cells. In this report, we describe an in vitro assay system using isolated retinas that is well suited for a variety of biochemical assays, including assessing Ca2+ effects on Rho* phosphorylation. Pieces of bovine retina with intact rod outer segments were treated with pore-forming staphylococcal alpha-toxin, including an alpha-toxin mutant that forms pores whose permeability is modulated by Zn2+. The pores formed through the plasma membranes of rod cells permit the diffusion of small molecules <2 kDa but prevent the loss of proteins, including recoverin (25 kDa). The selective permeability of these pores was confirmed by using the small intracellular tracer N-(2-aminoethyl) biotinamide hydrochloride. Application of [gamma-32P]ATP to alpha-toxin-treated, isolated retina allowed us to monitor and quantify phosphorylation of Rho*. Under various experimental conditions, including low and high [Ca2+]free, the same level of Rho* phosphorylation was measured. No differences were observed between low and high [Ca2+]free conditions, even when rods were loaded with ATP and the pores were closed by Zn2+. These results suggest that under physiological conditions, Rho* phosphorylation is insensitive to regulation by Ca2+ and Ca2+-binding proteins, including recoverin.