Cells isolated from the rat gastric mucosa were resolved into two fractions on a percoll density gradient, and into five fractions using counterflow centrifugation (elutriation). Ca(2+)-dependent nitric oxide synthase (NOS) activity was found in the high density percoll fraction but not in the parietal cell enriched low density fraction. This activity was inhibited by NG-monomethyl-L-arginine with an IC50 of 3.7 microM. Cells in the elutriator fraction rich in mucous-epithelial cells exhibited the highest NOS activity, while the smaller cell fractions had no detectable NOS yet had the highest basal release of prostaglandin E2. The parietal cell enriched elutriator fraction again had low NOS activity. The activity of a constitutive NOS in the mucous-cell fraction may indicate a role of NO in the regulation of epithelial cell integrity or secretion.