11-cis-Retinol has previously been shown in physiological experiments to promote dark adaptation and recovery of photo-responsiveness of bleached salamander red cones but not of bleached salamander red rods. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the direct interaction of 11-cis-retinol with expressed human and salamander cone opsins, and to determine by microspectrophotometry pigment formation in isolated salamander photoreceptors. We show here in a cell-free system using incorporation of radioactive guanosine 5'-3-O-( thio) triphosphate into transducin as an index of activity, that 11-cis-retinol inactivates expressed salamander cone opsins, acting an inverse agonist. Similar results were obtained with expressed human red and green opsins. 11-cis-Retinol had no significant effect on the activity of human blue cone opsin. In contrast, 11-cis-retinol activates the expressed salamander and human red rod opsins, acting as an agonist. Using microspectrophotometry of salamander cone photoreceptors before and after bleaching and following subsequent treatment with 11-cis-retinol, we show that 11-cis-retinol promotes pigment formation. Pigment was not formed in salamander red rods or green rods ( containing the same opsin as blue cones) treated under the same conditions. These results demonstrate that 11-cis-retinol is not a useful substrate for rod photoreceptors although it is for cone photoreceptors. These data support the premise that rods and cones have mechanisms for handling retinoids and regenerating visual pigment that are specific to photoreceptor type. These mechanisms are critical to providing regenerated pigments in a time scale required for the function of these two types of photoreceptors.