To determine the role of endogenous enkephalinase (EC 188.8.131.52) in regulating peptide-induced contraction of airway smooth muscle, we studied the effect of the enkephalinase inhibitor, leucine-thiorphan (Leu-thiorphan), on responses of isolated ferret tracheal smooth muscle segments to substance P (SP) and to electrical field stimulation (EFS). Leu-thiorphan shifted the dose-response curve to SP to lower concentrations. Atropine or the SP antagonist [D-Pro2,D-Trp7,9]SP significantly inhibited SP-induced contractions in the presence of Leu-thiorphan. Leu-thiorphan increased the contractile responses to EFS dose dependently, an effect that was significantly inhibited by the SP antagonist [D-Pro2,D-Trp7,9]SP. SP, in a concentration that did not cause contraction, increased the contractile responses to EFS. This effect was augmented by Leu-thiorphan dose dependently and was not inhibited by hexamethonium or by phentolamine but was inhibited by atropine. Because contractile responses to acetylcholine were not significantly affected by SP or by Leu-thiorphan, the potentiating effects of SP were probably on presynaptic-postganglionic cholinergic neurotransmission. Captopril, bestatin, or leupeptin did not augment contractions, suggesting that enkephalinase was responsible for the effects. These results suggest that endogenous tachykinins modulate smooth muscle contraction and endogenous enkephalinase modulates contractions produced by endogenous or exogenous tachykinins and tachykinin-induced facilitation of cholinergic neurotransmission.