Cyclic GMP causes the release of endogenous Ca2+ from rod outer segments, whose plasma membrane has been made permeable, or from isolated discs. Approximately 11,000 Ca2+ ions are released per disc at saturating concentrations of cyclic GMP. The velocity and the amplitude of the release of Ca2+ are dependent on the concentration of cyclic GMP. The maximal rate of the Ca2+ efflux is approximately 7 X 10(4) Ca2+ ions s-1 rod-1. The Ca2+ release by cyclic GMP is independent of light. The activation of the efflux occurred within a narrow range of the cyclic GMP concentration (30-80 microM) and does not obey a simple Michaelis-Menten scheme. Instead, the kinetic analysis of the Ca2+ efflux suggests that a minimum number of 2 molecules of cyclic GMP activates the ion conductance in a cooperative fashion. The release of Ca2+ by cyclic GMP requires a gradient of Ca2+ ions across the disc membrane. If the endogenous Ca2+ gradient is dissipated by means of the ionophore A23187, the release of Ca2+ by cyclic GMP is abolished. Ca2+ is released by analogues of cyclic GMP which are either modified at the 8-carbon position of the imidazole ring or by the deaza-analogue of cyclic GMP. Congeners of cyclic GMP which are modified at the ribose, phosphodiester, or pyrimidine portion of the molecule are ineffective. The hydrolysis of cyclic GMP by the light-regulated phosphodiesterase of rod outer segments is not a necessary condition for the Ca2+ release because 8-bromo-cyclic GMP, a congener resistant to hydrolysis, is a more powerful activator of the release than cyclic GMP itself. Ca2+ release by cyclic GMP is inhibited by organic and inorganic blockers of Ca2+ channels. The l-stereoisomer of cis-diltiazem blocks the release of Ca2+ at micromolar concentrations, whereas the d-form is much less effective. These results suggest that disc membranes contain a cationic conductance which is permeable to Ca2+ ions and which is regulated through the cooperative binding of at least 2 molecules of cyclic GMP to regulatory sites of the transport protein. By this mechanism, subtle changes in the concentration of cyclic GMP could promote large changes in the flux of Ca2+ ions across the disc membrane.