The fundamental, yet poorly understood, physiological mechanism known as 'acidic-metabolic' vasodilation, contributes to local blood flow regulation during hypoxia/ischaemia and increased metabolic activity. The vasodilator nitric oxide (NO) has been suggested to be involved in this event. Besides enzymatic production by NO synthases, a novel mechanism for generation of this gas in vivo was recently described. This involves non-enzymatic reduction of inorganic nitrite to NO, a reaction that takes place predominantly during acidic/reducing conditions. We have studied the effects of physiological amounts of nitrite on NO generation and relaxation of rat aorta in vitro in a situation where environmental pH was reduced to levels seen in tissues during hypoxia/ischaemia. The relaxatory effect of nitrite was increased in an acidic buffer solution (pH 6.6) compared with neutral pH; EC50 for nitrite was reduced from 200 to 40 microM. Nitrite-evoked relaxation was effectively prevented by coadministration of an inhibitor of soluble guanylyl cyclase. The relaxation was further potentiated by the addition of ascorbic acid. In parallel, NO was generated from nitrite in a pH dependent manner with even larger amounts seen after addition of ascorbic acid. NO generation from nitrite correlated to the the degree of relaxation of rat aorta. These results illustrate non-enzymatic release of NO from nitrite at physiological concentrations. This may be an important auto-regulated physiological mechanism involved in the regulation of vascular tone during hypoxia/ischaemia.