Recent studies of the activation mechanism of rhodopsin involving Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy and a combination of chromophore modifications and site-directed mutagenesis reveal an allosteric coupling between two protonation switches. In particular, the ring and the 9-methyl group of the all-trans retinal chromophore serve to couple two proton-dependent activation steps: proton uptake by a cytoplasmic network between transmembrane (TM) helices 3 and 6 around the conserved ERY (Glu-Arg-Tyr) motif and disruption of a salt bridge between the retinal protonated Schiff base (PSB) and a protein counterion in the TM core of the receptor. Retinal analogs lacking the ring or 9-methyl group are only partial agonists—the conformational equilibrium between inactive Meta I and active Meta II photoproduct states is shifted to Meta I. An artificial pigment was engineered, in which the ring of retinal was removed and the PSB salt bridge was weakened by fluorination of C14 of the retinal polyene. These modifications abolished allosteric coupling of the proton switches and resulted in a stabilized Meta I state with a deprotonated Schiff base (Meta ISB). This state had a partial Meta II-like conformation due to disruption of the PSB salt bridge, but still lacked the cytoplasmic proton uptake reaction characteristic of the final transition to Meta II. As activation of native rhodopsin is known to involve deprotonation of the retinal Schiff base prior to formation of Meta II, this Meta ISB state may serve as a model for the structural characterization of a key transient species in the activation pathway of a prototypical G protein-coupled receptor.