1. Nitric oxide (NO) has been shown to modulate neuropeptide secretion from the posterior pituitary. Here we show that NO activates large-conductance Ca2+-activated K+ (BK) channels in posterior pituitary nerve terminals. 2. NO, generated either by the photolysis of caged-NO or with chemical donors, irreversibly enhanced the component of whole-terminal K+ current due to BK channels and increased the activity of BK channels in excised patches. NO also inhibited the transient A-current. The time courses of these effects on K+ current were very different; activation of BK channels developed slowly over several minutes whereas inhibition of A-current immediately followed NO uncaging. 3. Activation of BK channels by NO occurred in the presence of guanylyl cyclase inhibitors and after removal of ATP or GTP from the pipette solution, suggesting a cGMP-independent signalling pathway. 4. The sulfhydryl alkylating agent N-ethyl maleimide (NEM) increased BK channel activity. Pretreatment with NEM occluded NO activation. 5. NO activation of BK channels occurred independently of voltage and cytoplasmic Ca2+ concentration. In addition, NO removed the strict Ca2+ requirement for channel activation, rendering channels highly active even at nanomolar Ca2+ levels. 6. These results suggest that NO, or a reactive nitrogen byproduct, chemically modifies nerve terminal BK channels or a closely associated protein and thereby produces an increase in channel activity. Such activation is likely to inhibit impulse activity in posterior pituitary nerve terminals and this may explain the inhibitory action of NO on secretion.