The possible role of Ca ions in mediating the drop in sensitivity associated with light adaptation in Limulus ventral photoreceptors was assessed by simultaneously measuring the sensitivity to light and the intracellular free Ca concentration (Cai); the latter was measured by using Ca-selective microelectrodes. In dark-adapted photoreceptors, the mean resting Cai was 3.5 +/- 2.5 microM SD (n = 31). No correlation was found between resting Cai and absolute sensitivity from cell to cell. Typically, photoreceptors are not uniformly sensitive to light; the Cai rise evoked by uniform illumination was 20-40 times larger and faster in the most sensitive region of the cell (the rhabdomeral lobe) than it was away from it. In response to a brief flash, the Cai rise was barely detectable when 10(2) photons were absorbed, and it was saturated when approximately 10(5) photons were absorbed. During maintained illumination, starting near the threshold of light adaptation, steady Cai increases were associated with steady desensitizations over several log units of light intensity: a 100-fold desensitization was associated with a 2.5-fold increase in Cai. After a bright flash, sensitivity and Cai recovered with different time courses: the cell was still desensitized by approximately 0.5 log units when Cai had already recovered to the prestimulus level, which suggests that under those conditions Cai is not the rate-limiting step of dark adaptation. Ionophoretic injection of EGTA markedly decreased the light-induced Cai rise and increased the time to peak of the light response, but did not alter the resting Cai, which suggests that the time to peak is affected by a change in the capacity to bind Ca2+ and not by resting Cai. Lowering the extracellular Ca2+ concentration (Cao) first decreased Cai and increased sensitivity. Longer exposure to low Cao resulted in a further decrease of Cai but decreased rather than increased sensitivity, which suggests that under certain conditions it is possible to uncouple Cai and sensitivity.

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