1. The role of cyclic GMP in the ability of nitric oxide (NO) to decrease intracellular free calcium concentration [Ca2+]i and divalent cation influx was studied in rabbit aortic smooth muscle cells in primary culture. In cells stimulated with angiotensin II (AII, 10(-1) M), NO (10(-10) - 10(-6) M) increased cyclic GMP levels measured by radioimmunoassay and decreased [Ca2+]i and cation influx as indicated by fura-2 fluorimetry. 2. Zaprinast (10(-4) M), increased NO-stimulated levels of cyclic GMP by 3-20 fold. Although the phosphodiesterase inhibitor lowered the level of [Ca2+]i reached after administration of NO, the initial decreases in [Ca2+]i initiated by NO were not significantly different in magnitude or duration from those that occurred in the absence of zaprinast. 3. The guanylyl cyclase inhibitor, H-(1,2,4) oxadiazolo(4,3-a) quinoxallin-1-one (ODQ, 10(-5) M), blocked cyclic GMP accumulation and activation of protein kinase G, as measured by back phosphorylation of the inositol trisphosphate receptor. ODQ and Rp-8-Br-cyclic GMPS, a protein kinase G inhibitor, decreased the effects of NO, 10(-10) - 10(-8) M, but the decrease in [Ca2+]i or cation influx caused by higher concentrations of NO (10(-7) - 10(-6) M) were unaffected. Relaxation of intact rabbit aorta rings to NO (10(-7) - 10(-5) M) also persisted in the presence of ODQ without a significant increase in cyclic GMP. Rp-8-Br-cyclic GMPS blocked the decreases in cation influx caused by a cell permeable cyclic GMP analog, but ODQ and/or the protein kinase G inhibitor had no significant effect on the decrease caused by NO. 4. Although inhibitors of cyclic GMP, protein kinase G and phosphodiesterase can be shown to affect the decrease in [Ca2+]i and cation influx via protein kinase G, these studies indicate that when these mechanisms are blocked, cyclic GMP-independent mechanisms also contribute significantly to the decrease in [Ca2+]i and smooth muscle relaxation to NO.