An in vitro bioassay system was developed to study endothelium-mediated, shear stress-induced, or flow-dependent generation of endothelium-derived relaxing factor (EDRF). Monolayers of aortic endothelial cells were grown on a rigid and large surface area of microcarrier beads and were packed in a small column perfused with Krebs bicarbonate solution. The perfusate was allowed to superfuse three endothelium-denuded target pulmonary arterial strips arranged in a cascade. Fluid shear stress caused a flow-dependent release of EDRF from the endothelial cells. The action of EDRF was abolished by oxyhemoglobin and methylene blue, and the generation of EDRF in response to shear stress was markedly inhibited or abolished by NG-nitro-L-arginine, by NG-amino-L-arginine, by calcium-free extracellular medium, and by depleting endothelial cells of endogenous L-arginine. Addition of L-arginine to arginine-deficient but not arginine-containing endothelial cells rapidly restored the capacity of shear stress and bradykinin to generate EDRF. These observations indicate that fluid shear stress causes the generation of EDRF with properties of nitric oxide from aortic endothelial cells and that the bioassay system described may be useful for studying the mechanism of mechanochemical coupling that leads to nitric oxide generation.