Mechanisms of relaxation and contraction to protease-activated receptor- (PAR) tethered ligand peptides (SFLLRN/TFLLR, SLIGRL and GYPGKF (all C-terminally amidated) for PAR1, PAR2 and PAR4, respectively) and enzymes (thrombin and trypsin) were investigated in isolated segments of rat trachea, main and first order intrapulmonary bronchi. In airway segments previously exposed to SLIGRL, SFLLRN caused contractions that were potentiated by indomethacin, but were independent of mast cell degranulation. Contractions to TFLLR in the intrapulmonary bronchi were similarly potentiated by indomethacin. SLIGRL caused epithelium-dependent relaxations which were unaffected by N(G)-nitro-L-arginine, 1-H-oxodiazol-[1,2,4]-[4,3-a]quinoxaline-1-one or zinc-protoporphyrin-IX but were abolished by haemoglobin in all three regions of the airways. Relaxations to SLIGRL were markedly attenuated by indomethacin only in the main and intrapulmonary bronchi. GYPGKF caused epithelium-dependent relaxations in all three regions of the airway which were only significantly inhibited by indomethacin in the intrapulmonary bronchi. In general, thrombin and trypsin failed to cause any response in the airways tested. Intense PAR2-immunoreactivity was observed on airway epithelium. PAR1-immunoreactivity was faint on airway epithelium and smooth muscle, but was prevalent in mast cells. These findings indicate that PAR2 and possibly PAR4 present on rat airway epithelia mediate smooth muscle relaxation via cyclo-oxygenase-dependent and -independent mechanisms. PAR1-mediated contractions were most likely due to activation of smooth muscle receptors. The general failure of thrombin and trypsin to cause responses which may have been due to endogenous protease inhibitors, highlights the need for caution in assessing pathophysiological roles for PARs if only enzymes are used to activate PARs.