Endothelium-derived factor (EDRF) from bovine aortic endothelial cells was compared to solutions of authentic nitric oxide (NO) and to solutions of the nitrosothiol S-nitroso-L-cysteine. EDRF was produced from endothelial cells by basal release or by stimulation with the calcium ionophore A23187. Biological activity was measured as relaxation of porcine coronary arteries preconstricted with prostaglandin F2 alpha, and chemical analysis was made of the nitrosyl content by measurement of NO released after chemical reduction with 1% sodium iodide in glacial acetic acid. EDRF, NO, and nitrosocysteine had identical half-lives, were all inactivated by hemoglobin and methylene blue, and were all augmented in their biological activity by superoxide dismutase. When solutions were analyzed for their biological activity as a function of the NO content (after NaI/acetic acid reduction), nitrosocysteine showed more vasodilation per amount of contained NO than did authentic NO. Solutions containing EDRF (basal release or by stimulation with A23187) subjected to the same analysis appeared similar to nitrosocysteine, and were distinct from solutions of NO. These experiments show that nitrosyl compounds other than NO can have properties very similar or identical to EDRF, and that in this system EDRF appears more similar to nitrosocysteine than to NO.