Several methods have been used to study the distribution of the semicarbazide-sensitive amine oxidase (SSAO) within the wall of the rat aorta. After separation of the smooth muscle-containing layers of the tunica media from the connective tissue of the tunica adventitia, much higher specific enzyme activity (measured with 1 microM benzylamine) was found in homogenates of the media than of adventitia. Similar results were obtained for MAO-A (with 1 mM 5-HT as substrate). SSAO activity was also considerably higher in homogenates of cells (predominantly smooth muscle) isolated from medial tissue by enzymatic dissociation with collagenase and elastase compared with homogenates of cells (mostly of connective tissue origin) from the adventitia. Histochemical staining resulting from SSAO activity (with benzylamine as substrate) occurred predominantly and intensely over the tunica media in rat aortic sections, although some occasional staining of adventitial sites was also observed. Staining was prevented by the SSAO inhibitors hydroxylamine (1 microM) and semicarbazide (1 mM), but not by the MAO inhibitor, clorgyline (1 mM). These results indicate that SSAO is associated predominantly, although not exclusively, with the smooth muscle cells in the rat aorta. Our findings that beta-aminopropionitrile (BAPN) is a reversible, competitive inhibitor (Ki around 2 X 10(-4)M) of SSAO, in contrast to the irreversible inhibition of the connective tissue lysyl oxidase by BAPN reported by others, provides further evidence that these enzymes are not identical.