The effects of pituitary adenylate cyclase activating peptide (PACAP) on the blood pressure of the anesthetized rat and on the isolated rat tail artery were investigated and compared to those of vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP). PACAP-38, PACAP-27 and the C-terminal fragment 16-38 caused a dose-dependent decrease in the systemic blood pressure. PACAP-27 and PACAP-38 were equipotent with VIP. The C-terminal fragment 16-38 was much less potent than VIP. The duration of action was longer for equimolar doses of PACAP-38 and PACAP-27 than for VIP and much longer than for PACAP 16-38. PACAP-27 and the phosphodiesterase inhibitor rolipram given in combination produced additive vasodepressive responses. In vitro PACAP-38, PACAP-27, VIP and PACAP 16-38 relaxed the phenylephrine-precontracted rat tail artery. PACAP-38 and PACAP-27 were equipotent with VIP. PACAP 16-38 was much less potent than the full-length peptides. The responses were resistant to atropine and propranolol. Addition of VIP 1 microM to preparations exposed to 1 microM PACAP-38 or -27 did not produce a further relaxation. VIP-like peptides, PACAP in particular, are known to activate adenylate cyclase and to elevate the plasma cyclic AMP (cAMP) concentration. cAMP was found to be a potent vasodepressor in the anaesthetized rat and a potent vasodilator of precontracted blood vessels. On the basis of these results it cannot be excluded that the vascular effects of PACAP are secondary to the effect of elevated levels of extracellular cAMP.