The transmitter glutamate is thought to be used by all vertebrate photoreceptors to drive the second-order neurons of the retina, horizontal and bipolar neurons. Dopamine, an endogenous retinal neurotransmitter localized to amacrine and interplexiform cells, has previously been shown to enhance glutamate-gated currents in retinal horizontal cells. In the present study we demonstrate that bipolar cells, like horizontal cells, possess glutamate receptors that are modulated by dopamine. We then identify some components of the pathway through which dopamine acts. We used whole-cell patch recording to measure how bath-applied dopamine modulated the currents elicited by puffs of transmitter solutions at bipolar cell dendrites. Excitatory amino acid-gated currents were evoked by pressure ejecting 1 mM glutamate or 10 microM kainate for 40 msec through a micropipette positioned at the dendrites of bipolar cells. Bath-applied dopamine (20 microM) enhanced the response to glutamate in OFF bipolar cells in the retinal slice by 40% and in isolated OFF bipolar cells by 65%. We also explored the components of the intracellular pathway mediating this modulation. Response enhancement was blocked by the D1 receptor antagonist SCH23390, but not by the D2 receptor antagonist spiperone, suggesting that the enhancement by dopamine is mediated by a D1 receptor. GDP-beta-S, a G-protein inactivator, blocked the enhancing action of dopamine, suggesting that the D1 receptor activated a G- protein to enhance the glutamate-gated current. Both 8-(4- chlorophenylthio)adenosine, a cAMP analog, and the addition of the catalytic subunit of protein kinase A (PKA) to the recording pipette enhanced glutamate-gated currents, while H-7, a PK inactivator, and PKI20amide, a PKA-specific inhibitor, blocked the enhancing action of dopamine. These data suggest that dopamine acts at D1 receptors in the dendrites of bipolar cells to activate adenyl cyclase, which through cAMP enhances a glutamate-gated current in bipolar cell dendrites. Thus, dopamine may modulate synaptic transmission from photoreceptors to OFF bipolar cells.