Retinas from the scallop Pecten irradians were enzymatically dispersed, yielding a large number of isolated photoreceptors suitable for tight-seal recording. Whole-cell voltage clamp measurements demonstrated that the phototransducing machinery remained intact: quantum bumps could be elicited by dim illumination, while brighter flashes produced larger, smooth photocurrents. Single-channel currents specifically activated by light were recorded in cell-attached patches, and were almost exclusively confined to the rhabdomeric region. Their density is sufficiently high to account for the macroscopic photoresponse. Channel activation is graded with stimulus intensity in a range comparable to that of the whole-cell response, and can be recorded with illumination sufficiently dim to evoke only quantum bumps. Light-dependent channel openings are very brief, on average 1 ms or less at 20-22 degrees C, apparently not because of blockage by extracellular divalent cations. The mean open time does not change substantially with stimulus intensity. In particular, since dwell times are in the millisecond range even with the dimmest lights, the channel closing rate does not appear to be the rate-limiting step for the decay kinetics of discrete waves. The latency of the first opening after light onset is inversely related to light intensity, and the envelope of channel activity resembles the time course of the whole-cell photocurrent. Unitary currents are inward at resting potential, and have a reversal voltage similar to that of the macroscopic light response. Voltage modulates the activity of light-sensitive channels by increasing the opening rate and also by lengthening the mean open times as the patch is depolarized. The unitary conductance of the predominant class of events is approximately 48 pS, but at least one additional category of smaller-amplitude openings was observed. The relative incidence of large and small events does not appear to be related in a simple way to the state of adaptation of the cell.

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