We studied the effect of age on the response of aortic rings to injury produced by three days' incubation, and the mechanism of this response. Five-mm rings of the thoracic aorta isolated from Wistar rats were incubated or not in culture medium. Isometric contraction evoked by agonists (norepinephrine or serotonin) or high [K(+)](e) was determined in the presence and absence of endothelium. Experiments were repeated in the presence of propranolol (0.3 microM), polymixin B (36 microM), pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate (50 microM) or glutathione (3 mM). Inductible NO-synthase and cyclo-oxygenase-2 mRNA were determined by real-time PCR, and glutathione-related enzymes and catalase activity by spectrophotometry. Incubation reduced the isometric contraction evoked by agonists but not by high [K(+)](e). The reduction in agonist-evoked contraction was greater in rings from adult (norepinephrine Emax-80%) than in young (-40%) rats. The removal of the endothelium had no effect. The reduction in norepinephrine-evoked contraction was not due to endotoxin contamination, beta-adrenoceptor-mediated dilation or any change in ring structure (no fibrosis or edema). Inductible NO-synthase (but not cyclo-oxygenase-2) mRNA increased on incubation. N(G)-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester partially restored contractility in rings from adult animals, further addition of an anti-oxidant restored norepinephrine-evoked contraction. Catalase fell with age and glutathione reductase increased upon incubation in rings from young donors only. In conclusion, incubation of the aorta produces a specific reduction in agonist-evoked contraction that involves induction of smooth muscle cell oxidative stress and iNOS. The reaction is greater in rings from older animals.