We studied the activation of 3',5'-cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) phosphodiesterase (PDE) by using a cell-permeant enzyme inhibitor. Rods of Ambystoma tigrinum held in a suction electrode were jumped into a stream of 3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine (IBMX), 0.01-1 mM. Initial transient light-sensitive currents fit the notion that dark and light-activated forms of PDE contributed independently to metabolic activity and were equivalently inhibited by IBMX (apparent Ki 30 microns). Inhibition developed within 50 ms, producing a step decrease of enzyme velocity, which could be offset by activation with flashes or steps of light. The dark PDE activity was equivalent to light activation of enzyme by 1,000 isomerization rod-1s-1, sufficient to hydrolyze the free cGMP pool (1/e) in 0.6 s. Steady light activated PDE in linear proportion to isomerization rate, the range from darkness to current saturation amounting to a 10-fold increase. The conditions for simultaneous onset of inhibitor and illumination to produce no net change of membrane current defined the apparent lifetime of light-activated PDE, TPDE* = 0.9 s, which was independent of both background illumination and current over the range 0-3 x 10(5) isomerization s-1, from 50 to 0 pA. Adaptation was a function of current rather than isomerization: jumps with different proportions of IBMX concentration to steady light intensity produced equal currents, and followed the same course of adaptation in maintained light, despite a 10-fold difference of illumination. Judged from the delay between IBMX- and light-induced currents, the dominant feedback regulatory site comes after PDE on the signal path. The dark active PDE affects the hydrolytic flux and cytoplasmic diffusion of cGMP, as well as the proportional range of the cGMP activity signal in response to light.

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