Anabaena sensory rhodopsin (ASR) is a novel microbial rhodopsin recently discovered in the freshwater cyanobacterium Anabaena sp. PCC7120. This protein most likely functions as a photosensory receptor as do the related haloarchaeal sensory rhodopsins. However, unlike the archaeal pigments, which are tightly bound to their cognate membrane-embedded transducers, ASR interacts with a soluble cytoplasmic protein analogous to transducers of animal vertebrate rhodopsins. In this study, infrared spectroscopy was used to examine the molecular mechanism of photoactivation in ASR. Light adaptation of the pigment leads to a phototransformation of an all-trans/15-anti to 13-cis/15-syn retinylidene-containing species very similar in chromophore structural changes to those caused by dark adaptation in bacteriorhodopsin. Following 532 nm laser-pulsed excitation, the protein exhibits predominantly an all-trans retinylidene photocycle containing a deprotonated Schiff base species similar to those of other microbial rhodopsins such as bacteriorhodopsin, sensory rhodopsin II, and Neurospora rhodopsin. However, no changes are observed in the Schiff base counterion Asp-75, which remains unprotonated throughout the photocycle. This result along with other evidence indicates that the Schiff base proton release mechanism differs significantly from that of other known microbial rhodopsins, possibly because of the absence of a second carboxylate group at the ASR photoactive site. Several conformational changes are detected during the ASR photocycle including in the transmembrane helices E and G as indicated by hydrogen-bonding alterations of their native cysteine residues. In addition, similarly to animal vertebrate rhodopsin, perturbations of the polar head groups of lipid molecules are detected.