The resynthesis of cGMP in vertebrate photoreceptors by guanylate cyclase is one of the key events leading to the reopening of cGMP-gated channels after photoexcitation. Guanylate cyclase activity in vertebrate rod outer segments is dependent on the free calcium concentration. The basal activity of the enzyme observed at high concentrations of free calcium (greater than 0.5 microM) increases when the free calcium concentration is lowered into the nanomolar range (less than 0.1 microM). This effect of calcium is known to be mediated by a soluble calcium-sensitive protein in a highly cooperative way. We here show that this soluble protein, i.e. the modulator of photoreceptor guanylate cyclase, is a 26 kd protein. Reconstitution of the purified 26 kd protein with washed rod outer segment membranes containing guanylate cyclase revealed a 3- to 4-fold increase of cyclase activity when the free calcium concentration was lowered in the physiological range from 0.5 microM to 4 nM. Guanylate cyclase in whole rod outer segments was stimulated 10-fold in the same calcium range. The activation process in the reconstituted system was similar to the one in the native rod outer segment preparation, it showed a high cooperativity with a Hill coefficient n between 1.4 and 3.5. The half-maximal activation occurred between 110 and 220 nM free calcium. The molar ratio of the modulator to rhodopsin is 1:76 +/- 32. The protein is a calcium binding protein as detected with 45Ca autoradiography. Partial amino acid sequence analysis revealed a 60% homology to visinin from chicken cones.