Foetal calf serum (FCS) and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF)-stimulated incorporation of [3H]thymidine into pig aortic smooth muscle cell (ASMC) DNA was decreased by agents that either stimulated the synthesis (forskolin) or inhibited the breakdown (3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine, IBMX) of cAMP. FCS-stimulated incorporation of [3H]thymidine into DNA was also reduced by selective inhibitors of cAMP-specific phosphodiesterase (PDE IV) (Ro-20-1724, rolipram) and cGMP-inhibited cAMP PDE (PDE III) (SK&F 94836). IBMX, Ro-20-1724, rolipram and SK&F 94836 enhanced forskolin inhibition of DNA synthesis. Alone, rolipram was a relatively weak inhibitor of FCS-induced ASMC DNA synthesis (IC25 greater than 20 microM); however, in the presence of a threshold concentration of SK&F 94836 (20 microM), the potency of rolipram increased (IC25 = 4 microM), suggesting synergy in the actions of PDE III and PDE IV inhibitors. SK&F 94836 and rolipram elicited 30% and 37%, respectively, reductions in FCS-induced ASMC proliferation and potentiated the inhibitory actions of forskolin. PDE III and PDE IV inhibitors alone, exerted minimal effects on ASMC cAMP levels after a short term (10 min) or long-term (2 or 24 hr) exposure, but enhanced forskolin-induced accumulation of cAMP. ASMC spontaneously released cAMP into the extracellular medium, a process that was increased by forskolin. PDE III and PDE IV inhibitors had no effect alone on cAMP extrusion but enhanced the effect of forskolin. Exposure of ASMC to forskolin or SK&F 94836 for 15 min increased the activity ratio (AR) of cAMP-dependent protein kinase from 0.05 to 0.17 and 0.23, respectively. Ro-20-1724, alone, did not affect cAMP-dependent protein kinase but enhanced the stimulatory effect of forskolin (AR = 0.37) and SK&F 94836 (AR = 0.27). Agents that increased cGMP synthesis (glycerol trinitrate, atrial natriuretic factor) or decreased its hydrolysis by selectively inhibiting cGMP-specific PDE (PDE V) (zaprinast) exerted no effects on FCS- or PDGF-stimulated [3H]thymidine incorporation into DNA either alone or in combination. The cytosolic fraction of pig ASMC contained four cyclic nucleotide PDEs which were categorized as PDE V, Ca2+/calmodulin-stimulated PDE (PDE I), PDE III and PDE IV. PDE I and III activities were also associated with the particulate fraction. The results demonstrate that inhibitors of PDEs III and IV alone or in combination with forskolin, reduce ASMC DNA synthesis and proliferation, through an action likely to involve elevation of intracellular cAMP. In contrast, inhibition of cGMP hydrolysing PDE subtypes (I and V) exerted no effect on DNA synthesis in this cell type.