Gap junction channels are formed by members of the connexin gene family and mediate direct intercellular communication through linked hemichannels (connexons) from each of two adjacent cells. While for most connexins, the hemichannels appear to require an apposing hemichannel to open, macroscopic currents obtained from Xenopus oocytes expressing rat Cx46 suggested that some hemichannels can be readily opened by membrane depolarization [Paul, D. L., Ebihara, L., Takemoto, L. J., Swenson, K. I. & Goodenough, D. A. (1991), J. Cell Biol. 115, 1077-1089]. Here we demonstrate by single channel recording that hemichannels comprised of rat Cx46 exhibit complex voltage gating consistent with there being two distinct gating mechanisms. One mechanism partially closes Cx46 hemichannels from a fully open state, gammaopen, to a substate, gammasub, about one-third of the conductance of gammaopen; these transitions occur when the cell is depolarized to inside positive voltages, consistent with gating by transjunctional voltage in Cx46 gap junctions. The other gating mechanism closes Cx46 hemichannels to a fully closed state, gammaclosed, on hyperpolarization to inside negative voltages and has unusual characteristics; transitions between gammaclosed and gammaopen appear slow (10-20 ms), often involving several transient substates distinct from gammasub. The polarity of activation and kinetics of this latter form of gating indicate that it is the mechanism by which these hemichannels open in the cell surface membrane when unapposed by another hemichannel. Cx46 hemichannels display a substantial preference for cations over anions, yet have a large unitary conductance (approximately 300 pS) and a relatively large pore as inferred from permeability to tetraethylammonium (approximately 8.5 angstroms diameter). These hemichannels open at physiological voltages and could induce substantial cation fluxes in cells expressing Cx46.