The cationic conductances of purified bovine retinal rod membranes were studied by incorporation of vesicles into planar lipid bilayers. When the membranes were stripped of all peripheral proteins [guanine nucleotide-binding protein (G protein) and cGMP phosphodiesterase (3',5'-cyclic-GMP 5'-nucleotidohydrolase), EC 126.96.36.199], sodium and calcium fluxes were almost only observed in the presence of cGMP. Reconstitution experiments in which purified cGMP phosphodiesterase alone or with G protein were reassociated to the vesicles in proportions similar to those found in the native rod provide evidence for a direct interaction between the cGMP-dependent channel protein and the phosphodiesterase. (i) In its inhibited state, phosphodiesterase markedly stimulates the activity of the channels in the presence of cGMP (situation in the dark-adapted rod) but is not capable of activating the channels in the absence of cGMP. (ii) In the absence of cGMP, activation of the phosphodiesterase by G protein with GTP bound (equivalent to photoexcitation) induces the opening of cation channels that have the same conductance for sodium ions as cGMP-activated channels (20-22 pS, with two sublevels of about 7 pS and 13 pS).