Endothelium-derived vascular relaxing factor (EDRF) is a humoral agent that is released by vascular endothelium and mediates vasodilator responses induced by various substances including acetylcholine and bradykinin. EDRF is very unstable, with a half-life of between 6 and 50 s, and is clearly distinguishable from prostacyclin. The chemical structure of EDRF is unknown but it has been suggested that it is either a hydroperoxy- or free radical-derivative of arachidonic acid or an unstable aldehyde, ketone or lactone. We have examined the role of superoxide anion (O-2) in the inactivation of EDRF released from vascular endothelial cells cultured on microcarrier beads and bioassayed using a cascade of superfused aortic smooth muscle strips. With this system, we have now demonstrated that EDRF is protected from breakdown by superoxide dismutase (SOD) and Cu2+, but not by catalase, and is inactivated by Fe2+. These findings indicate that O-2 contributes significantly to the instability of EDRF.