Effects of nitric oxide (NO) and NO-producing vasodilators such as glyceryl trinitrate and sodium nitroprusside were tested on DNA synthesis in the clonal rat aortic smooth muscle cells, RACS-1. DNA synthesis was estimated by [3H]thymidine incorporation to DNA. NO and NO-producing vasodilators inhibited the DNA synthesis that was induced by 10% fetal calf serum. NO and NO-producing vasodilators also inhibited the basal level of DNA synthesis that occurred possibly as a result of autocrine mechanisms. NO-producing vasodilators also inhibited the fetal calf serum-induced proliferation of cells. Sodium nitroprusside inhibited the endothelin-mediated DNA synthesis. In another mesenchymal cell line, Chinese hamster fibroblast V79 cells, NO and NO-producing vasodilators failed to inhibit DNA synthesis, excluding the possibility of general cell toxicity. An exposure to NO and NO-producing vasodilators resulted in an increase of cyclic GMP (cGMP) content in the RACS-1 cells. A cGMP analog, 8-bromo-cGMP, inhibited DNA synthesis in the RACS-1 cells. These results suggest that EDRF/nitric oxide released from endothelium possibly contributes to inhibition of the DNA synthesis in vascular smooth muscle cells.