Previous studies have established that nitrovasodilators potentiate the inhibition of platelet function by activators of adenylyl cyclase, but uncertainty exists as to whether a comparable effect is seen in vascular smooth muscle. We initially studied the effects of the nitrovasodilators, sodium nitroprusside (SNP) and 3-morpholinosydnonimine (SIN-1), on the relaxation by isoprenaline of rat aortic smooth muscle that had been precontracted by phenylephrine. Concentrations of SNP (0.25 nM) and SIN-1 (30 nM) that relaxed aortic smooth muscle less than 30% alone, caused significant (3-fold) decreases in the IC50 values for isoprenaline. The cAMP phosphodiesterase inhibitors, cilostamide (20 nM) and Ro 20-1724 (10 microM), caused comparable reductions in the IC50 values for isoprenaline. At these concentrations, each of the four compounds also increased the maximum relaxation achieved with isoprenaline. Even more marked synergistic interactions were observed between isoprenaline and either the nitrovasodilators or the cAMP phosphodiesterase inhibitors when these compounds were added simultaneously before contraction of aortic smooth muscle by phenylephrine. Thus, concentrations of SNP (5 nM), SIN-1 (1 microM), cilostamide (1 microM) and Ro 20-1724 (100 microM) that inhibited contraction by less than 30% decreased the IC50 values for isoprenaline by 8- to 10-fold. At the above concentrations, these compounds each caused a supra-additive inhibition of contraction when added with 100 nM isoprenaline. Thus, synergism between nitrovasodilators and isoprenaline, an activator of adenylyl cyclase, could be detected in vascular smooth muscle and was particularly marked when inhibition of contraction was studied. This action of nitrovasodilators resembled that of inhibitors of cAMP phosphodiesterase.