The mechanism by which agonist binding triggers pore opening in ligand-gated ion channels is poorly understood. Here, we used unnatural amino acid mutagenesis to introduce subtle changes to the side chains of tyrosine residues (Tyr141, Tyr143, Tyr153, and Tyr234), which dominate the 5-HT3 receptor binding site. Heterologous expression in oocytes, combined with radioligand binding data and a model of 5-HT (serotonin) computationally docked into the binding site, has allowed us to determine which of these residues are responsible for binding and/or gating. We have shown that Tyr 143 forms a hydrogen bond that is essential for receptor gating but does not affect binding, whereas a hydrogen bond formed by Tyr153 is involved in both binding and gating of the receptor. The aromatic group of Tyr234 is essential for binding and gating, whereas its hydroxyl does not affect binding but plays a steric role in receptor gating. Tyr141 is not involved in agonist binding or receptor gating but is important for antagonist interactions. These data, combined with a new model of the nonliganded 5-HT3 receptor, lead to a mechanistic explanation of the interactions that initiate the conformational change leading to channel opening. Thus, we suggest that agonist entry into the binding pocket may displace Tyr143 and Tyr153 and results in their forming new hydrogen bonds. These bonds may form part of the network of bond rearrangements that trigger the conformational change leading to channel opening. Similar rearrangements may initiate gating in all Cys-loop receptors.