The leading edge of the response of Limulus ventral photoreceptors to brief flashes was investigated using a voltage clamp. The leading edge of responses increases linearly with flash intensity when dim flashes produce less than one photoisomerization per square micron of cell surface. Brighter flashes accelerate the initial portion of the response, resulting in a fourth-power relationship between the magnitude of the response at brief times after the flash and the flash intensity. The onset of this nonlinearity with increasing flash intensity is determined by the local density of photoisomerizations within the receptor. Responses to bright 10-15-mum-diam spots therefore rise faster than responses to diffuse flashes producing the same number of photoisomerizations within the receptor. Background illumination shortens the response latency and suppresses the initial nonlinearity. These phenomena can be explained by a model of transduction in which light activates two parallel cascades of reactions. Particles released by the first of these cascades open ionic channels, while the second produces an agent that accelerates the rate of production of particles by the first. Injection of the calcium buffer EGTA slows the initial portion of the response to bright flashes and suppresses its nonlinearity, which suggests that the accelerating agent released by the second cascade is calcium.

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