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G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are cell-surface receptors that respond to various stimuli to induce signalling pathways across cell membranes. Recent progress has yielded atomic structures of key intermediates1,2 and roles for lipids in signalling3,4. However, capturing signalling events of a wild-type receptor in real time, across a native membrane to its downstream effectors, has remained elusive. Here we probe the archetypal class A GPCR, rhodopsin, directly from fragments of native disc membranes using mass spectrometry. We monitor real-time photoconversion of dark-adapted rhodopsin to opsin, delineating retinal isomerization and hydrolysis steps, and further showing that the reaction is significantly slower in its native membrane than in detergent micelles. Considering the lipids ejected with rhodopsin, we demonstrate that opsin can be regenerated in membranes through photoisomerized retinal-lipid conjugates, and we provide evidence for increased association of rhodopsin with unsaturated long-chain phosphatidylcholine during signalling. Capturing the secondary steps of the signalling cascade, we monitor light activation of transducin (Gt) through loss of GDP to generate an intermediate apo-trimeric G protein, and observe Gαt•GTP subunits interacting with PDE6 to hydrolyse cyclic GMP. We also show how rhodopsin-targeting compounds either stimulate or dampen signalling through rhodopsin-opsin and transducin signalling pathways. Our results not only reveal the effect of native lipids on rhodopsin signalling and regeneration but also enable us to propose a paradigm for GPCR drug discovery in native membrane environments.

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