1. Some animal studies suggest that beta-adrenoceptor-mediated vasorelaxation is in part mediated through nitric oxide (NO) release. Furthermore, in humans, we have recently shown that forearm blood flow is increased by infusion of beta2-adrenergic agonists into the brachial artery, and the nitric oxide synthase (NOS) inhibitor N(G)-monomethyl-L-arginine (L-NMMA) inhibits this response. 2. The purpose of the present study was to determine whether stimulation of human umbilical vein endothelial beta-adrenoceptors causes vasorelaxation and nitric oxide generation, and whether this might be mediated by cyclic adenosine-3',5'-monophosphate (cyclic AMP). 3. Vasorelaxant responses were determined in umbilical vein rings to the nonselective beta-adrenergic agonist isoprenaline and to the cyclic AMP analogue dibutyryl cyclic AMP, following precontraction with prostaglandin F2alpha. 4. NOS activity was measured in cultured human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) by the conversion of [3H]-L-arginine to [3H]-L-citrulline, and adenylyl cyclase activity by the conversion of [alpha-32P]-ATP to [32P]-cyclic AMP. 5. Isoprenaline relaxed umbilical vein rings, and this vasorelaxation was abolished by beta2- (but not beta1-) adrenergic blockage, and by endothelium removal or 1 mM L-NMMA. In addition, vasorelaxant responses to dibutyryl cyclic AMP were inhibited by 1 mM L-NMMA, with a reduction in Emax from 90.0+/-9.3% to 50.5+/-9.9% (P<0.05). 6. Isoprenaline 1 microM increased NOS activity in HUVEC (34.0+/-5.9% above basal, P<0.001). Furthermore, isoprenaline increased adenylyl cyclase activity in a concentration-dependent manner; this response was inhibited by beta2 (but not beta1-) adrenergic blockade. Forskolin 1 microM and dibutyryl cyclic AMP 1 mM each increased NOS activity in HUVEC, to a degree similar to isoprenaline 1 microM. The increase in L-arginine to L-citrulline conversion observed with each agent was abolished by coincubation with NOS inhibitors. 7. These results indicate that endothelial beta2-adrenergic stimulation and cyclic AMP elevation activate the L-arginine/NO system, and give rise to vasorelaxation, in human umbilical vein.