The source of nitric oxide (NO) and its role in neurally induced relaxation was examined in smooth muscle of the stomach and tenia coli. Field stimulation of gastric muscle strips was accompanied by frequency-dependent relaxation, vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) release, and NO production: the NO synthase inhibitor, NG-nitro-L-arginine (L-NNA) completely inhibited NO production and partly inhibited VIP release (52-54%) and relaxation (58-88%); inhibition of all three functions was reversed by L-arginine but not by D-arginine. In isolated gastric muscle cells, VIP caused relaxation and stimulated NO production: L-NNA completely inhibited NO production and partly inhibited relaxation; the inhibition was reversed by L-arginine but not by D-arginine. Abolition of NO production with only partial inhibition of relaxation implied that NO production from muscle cells induced by the action of VIP was partly responsible for relaxation. By contrast, field stimulation of tenia coli was accompanied by relaxation and VIP release but not by NO production. Neither VIP release nor relaxation was affected by L-NNA. In isolated muscle cells of tenia coli, VIP caused relaxation but did not stimulate NO production; relaxation in these cells was not affected by L-NNA. We conclude that 1) VIP is the primary relaxant transmitter in both gastric muscle and tenia coli, 2) the release of VIP in gastric muscle but not in tenia coli stimulates NO production from target muscle cells, and 3) NO amplifies the relaxant effect of VIP in muscle cells and acts presynaptically to enhance the release of VIP.