In previous work from our laboratory, 5-10% of the channels formed by [Val1]gramicidin A have conductances that fall outside the narrow range that conventionally has defined the standard gramicidin channel [e.g., see Russell et al. (1986) Biophys. J. 49, 673]. Reports from other laboratories, however, show that up to 50% of [Val1]gramicidin channels have conductances that fall outside the range for standard channels [e.g., see Prasad et al. (1986) Biochemistry 25, 456]. This laboratory-to-laboratory variation in the distribution of gramicidin single-channel conductances suggests that the conductance variants are induced by some environmental factor(s) [Busath et al. (1987) Biophys. J. 51, 79]. In order to test whether extrinsic agents can induce such conductance heterogeneity, we examined the effects of nonionic or zwitterionic detergents upon gramicidin channel behavior. In phospholipid bilayers, detergent addition induces many changes in gramicidin channel behavior: all detergents tested increase the channel appearance rate and average duration; most detergents decrease the conductance of the standard channel; and all but one of the detergents increase the conductance heterogeneity. These results show that the conductance heterogeneity can result from environmental perturbations, thus providing a possible explanation for the laboratory-to-laboratory variation in the heterogeneity of gramicidin channels. In addition, the differential detergent effects suggest possible mechanisms by which detergents can induce the conformational perturbations that result in gramicidin single-channel conductance variations.