Using an atomic force microscope, we have studied three-dimensional molecular topography and calcium-sensitive conformational changes of individual hemichannels. Full-length (non-truncated) Cx43 hemichannels (connexons), when reconstituted in lipid bilayer, appear as randomly distributed individual particles and clusters. They show a lack of preferential orientation of insertion into lipid membrane; in a single bilayer, connexons with protrusion of either the extracellular face or the large non-truncated cytoplasmic face are observed. Extracellular domains of these undocked hemichannels are structurally different from hemichannels in the docked gap junctional plaques examined after their exposure by force dissection or chemical dissection. Calcium induced a reversible change in the extracellular pore diameter. Hemichannels imaged in a physiological buffer with 1.8 mm Ca(+2) had the pore diameter of approximately 1.8 nm, consistent with the closed channel conformation. Reducing Ca(+2) concentration to approximately 1.4, 1, and 0 mm, which changes hemichannels from the closed to open conformation, increased the pore diameter to approximately 2.5 nm for approximately 27, 74, and 100% of hemichannels, respectively. Thus, open/close probability of the hemichannel appears to be [Ca(2+)]-dependent. Computational analysis of the atomic force microscopy phase mode imaging reveals a significantly higher interfacial energy for open hemichannels that results from the interactions between the atomic force microscope probe and the hydrophobic domains. Thus, hydrophobic extracellular domains of connexins regulate calcium-dependent conformational changes.