Incubation with 50 microM methylene blue (MB) and subsequent intense illumination resulted in abolition of the slow-wave activity in the submuscular interstitial cells of Cajal-circular muscle (ICC-CM) preparations of canine colon. This was often accompanied by a decrease in resting membrane potential. Repolarization of cells back to -70 mV did not restore the slow-wave activity, indicating that MB plus light directly interrupted the generation mechanism of slow waves. After MB incubation, a 2-min illumination consistently changed the mitochondrial conformation in ICCs from very condensed to orthodox, without inducing any obvious changes in smooth muscle cells. After 4- to 10-min illumination, ICCs became progressively more damaged with swollen and ruptured mitochondria, loss of cytoplasmic contrast and detail, loss of caveolae, and rupture of the plasma membrane. No damage was seen in smooth muscle cells or nerves. Gap junctional ultrastructure was preserved. Intense illumination without preincubation with MB left the slow waves and the ultrastructure of ICC-CM preparations unaffected. In CM preparations, without the submuscular ICC-smooth-muscle network, MB plus light induced no changes in electrical activity. We conclude that the correlation between selective damage to the submuscular ICCs (relative to smooth muscle) and selective loss of the slow-wave activity (relative to other electrical activity of the CM) strongly indicates that the ICCs play an essential role in the generation of slow waves.