Visual arrestin plays an important role in regulating light responsiveness via its ability to specifically bind to the phosphorylated and light-activated form of rhodopsin. To further characterize rhodopsin/arrestin interactions we have utilized a rabbit reticulocyte lysate translation system to synthesize bovine visual arrestin. The translated arrestin (404 amino acids) was demonstrated to be fully functional in terms of its ability to specifically recognize and bind to phosphorylated light-activated rhodopsin (P-Rh*). Competitive binding studies revealed that the in vitro synthesized arrestin and purified bovine visual arrestin had comparable affinities for P-Rh*. In an effort to assess the functional role of different regions of the arrestin molecule, two truncated arrestin mutants were produced by cutting within the open reading frame of the bovine arrestin cDNA with selective restriction enzymes. In vitro translation of the transcribed truncated mRNAs resulted in the production of arrestins truncated from the carboxyl terminus. The ability of each of the mutant arrestins to bind to dark (Rh), light-activated (Rh*), dark phosphorylated (P-Rh), and light-activated phosphorylated rhodopsin were then compared. Arrestin lacking 39 carboxyl-terminal residues binds specifically not only to P-Rh* but also to Rh* and P-Rh. This suggests that the carboxyl-terminal domain of arrestin plays an important regulatory role in ensuring strict arrestin binding selectivity to P-Rh*. Arrestin that has only the first 191 amino-terminal residues predominately discriminates the phosphorylation state of the rhodopsin; however, it also retains some binding specificity for the activation state. These results suggest that the amino-terminal half of arrestin contains key rhodopsin recognition sites responsible for interaction with both the phosphorylated and light-activated forms of rhodopsin.