The present study compared in vitro the motor responses of human and rabbit distal colonic longitudinal and circular muscle to acetylcholine, histamine, leukotrienes B4 and D4, and prostaglandins E2 and F2 alpha. The active and passive mechanical properties of these muscles were also evaluated. All muscle types were contracted by acetylcholine and histamine. Longitudinal muscle from both species was contracted by prostaglandin E2 and prostaglandin F2 alpha, although rabbit muscle was more sensitive. Prostaglandin E2 relaxed the majority of both human and rabbit circular muscle preparations that were studied. Prostaglandin F2 alpha first relaxed and then contracted circular muscle from both species. Leukotriene B4 had no effect on any tissue studied. Leukotriene D4 caused transient relaxations in a proportion of all muscle types, but the relaxations were not concentration-related. Contractile responses did not differ under isotonic recording conditions, but relaxations were much more clearly defined. Based on experiments using atropine, phentolamine and propranolol, and pyrilamine or tetrodotoxin, it was concluded that the responses of both human and rabbit distal colonic muscles to these inflammatory mediators have a similar pharmacological basis. All muscle types exhibited low passive tension and developed active tension in the range 0.8-1.2 Lo. These data strongly support the belief that after the onset of an induced colitis, the rabbit colon has value as a predictive model for the study of inflammatory mediator-induced colonic motility changes in humans.