Melatonin, the pineal hormone produced during the dark phase of the light-dark cycle, modulates neuronal acetylcholine receptors located presynaptically on the sympathetic nerve terminals of the rat vas deferens. The pD2 values for nicotine were significantly higher at night (4.20 +/- 0.01) than in the afternoon (3.80 +/- 0.07). Exogenous melatonin shifted the concentration-response curves for nicotine to the left, mimicking the effect of darkness. Melatonin modifies both the displacement and the saturation curves of [3H](-)nicotine binding. In membranes from animals killed at 15:00 h, the binding of [3H](-)nicotine (5-6 nM) was first potentiated and then inhibited by sequential concentrations of (-)nicotine. Higher concentrations of [3H](-)nicotine (50-60 nM) were displaced by all concentrations of nonlabeled ligand. However, when membranes from tissues exposed to melatonin (exogenous or endogenous) were tested, the lower [3H](-)nicotine concentration was displaced progressively by increasing concentrations of nonlabeled ligand. Equilibrium binding studies show a single class of high-affinity nicotinic binding sites with an apparent Kd value of 16 nM and an average maximal number of binding sites of 66 fmol mg-1 protein when animals were killed at the afternoon. Melatonin, although it did not change the properties of high-affinity binding sites, induced the appearance of a second population of lower apparent affinity (Kd = 36.7 nM; Bmax = 185.4 fmol/mg). Melatonin does not modify the functional response and the displacement of [3H](-)nicotine by dimethylphenylpiperazinium. The data suggest that nicotinic neuronal acetylcholine receptors stimulated by dimethylphenylpiperazinium do not change between the light and dark phases. Rather, the higher sensitivity to nicotine in prostatic portions incubated with exogenous melatonin, and in organs from animals killed at night, after the rise of endogenous melatonin, is probably due to the appearance of low-affinity neuronal nicotinic ACh binding sites.