The characteristics of carbon monoxide (CO)-induced, endothelium-independent relaxation of rabbit aorta were compared with those of nitric oxide (NO)-induced and light-induced relaxation and endothelium-dependent relaxation mediated by endothelium-dependent relaxing factor (EDRF). CO was less than one thousandth as potent as NO as a relaxant. Various findings, including an increase in cyclic GMP associated with CO-induced relaxation, led to the conclusion that CO - like NO, EDRF and light - produces relaxation as a result of its stimulation of guanylate cyclase. LY 83583, which generates superoxide, was a potent, fast-acting inhibitor of acetylcholine-induced endothelium-dependent relaxation and NO-induced relaxation, and a fairly potent, moderately fast-acting inhibitor of photorelaxation, but only a very weak inhibitor of CO-induced relaxation. The ability of LY 83583 as well as hemoglobin to inhibit photorelaxation is consistent with the hypothesis that on radiation a photo-induced relaxing factor is formed which can stimulate guanylate cyclase and which can be inactivated by superoxide and by hemoglobin.