Two conformational states of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor have been investigated by cryoelectron microscopy of flattened vesicular crystals grown from Torpedo marmorata postsynaptic membranes. One was obtained from the vesicles without acetylcholine present, and is presumed to correspond to the native, or resting state; the other was obtained from the vesicles after exposure to 100 microM to 5 mM carbamylcholine (an acetylcholine analogue) and is presumed to correspond to a desensitized state. Both conformations were determined in three-dimensions to a resolution of 18 A, sufficient to reveal the configurations of the five subunits around the central ion channel over most of their length. The subunits of either structure have a similar appearance, consistent with their amino acid homology. They are each aligned almost parallel to the axis of the receptor, conferring a high degree of pentagonal symmetry to the bilayer portion and a contiguous region on the synaptic side. Their external surfaces form a pronounced ridge in the bilayer portion, which broadens toward the synaptic end. Comparison of features in the two three-dimensional maps reveals that carbamylcholine induces a quaternary rearrangement, involving predominantly the delta-subunit. The densities corresponding to this subunit are tilted by approximately 10 degrees tangential to the axis of the receptor over a large fraction of its length, and become misaligned relative to the densities corresponding to the other four subunits. The gamma-subunit is also affected, being displaced slightly away from the axis of the receptor. The alpha- and beta-subunits may be affected on a more localized scale. The overall changes are most pronounced in the synaptic region, where the ligand-binding site is located, and in the cytoplasmic region, which may be closer to the gate of the channel. The physiological process of desensitization appears to be associated with a structural transition in which the subunits switch to a less symmetrical configuration.