Part of the regulation of gastrointestinal (GI) smooth muscles is provided by nonadrenergic noncholinergic (NANC) nerves. Stimulation of these nerves, either by field stimulation or via neural reflex pathways, elicits hyperpolarization of postjunctional smooth muscle membranes referred to as inhibitory junction potentials and relaxation. The transmitter(s) that mediate NANC inhibitory neural transmission have been a controversial topic for nearly 30 years. Recent evidence suggests that nitric oxide (NO) may serve as a NANC inhibitory transmitter in the GI tract. This hypothesis is supported by the following. 1) Immunohistochemical studies have shown that the enzyme necessary for NO synthesis is expressed in enteric neurons. In vitro studies of muscles from nearly all levels of GI tract have also shown that arginine analogues, which inhibit NO synthesis, reduce inhibitory effects of NANC neurotransmission. Effects of arginine analogues can be restored by addition of excess L-arginine, the substrate for NO synthesis. These data suggest that NO can be synthesized by enteric nerves. 2) Bioassays have demonstrated nerve-evoked release of a substance that has been identified as NO during NANC nerve stimulation. Oxyhemoglobin, known to bind to and sequester NO, also blocks NANC responses. These data suggest that NO is released into extracellular fluid during nerve stimulation. 3) Addition of NO causes rapid hyperpolarization of GI smooth muscle cells and relaxes muscles strips. These effects are similar to NANC nerve responses. NO and electrical field stimulation also increase tissue guanosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate, which may be the second messenger involved in NANC responses. 4) Removal of NO is easily accomplished by its rapid spontaneous breakdown in physiological solutions. 5) The pharmacology of NO and the NANC neurotransmitter in many preparations is similar, e.g., oxyhemoglobin blocks responses to NANC nerve stimulation and to exogenous NO. In summary, it would appear that many of the criteria necessary for NO to be considered a neurotransmitter have been satisfied.