Nitric oxide (NO) released by vascular endothelial cells accounts for the relaxation of strips of vascular tissue and for the inhibition of platelet aggregation and platelet adhesion attributed to endothelium-derived relaxing factor. We now demonstrate that NO can be synthesized from L-arginine by porcine aortic endothelial cells in culture. Nitric oxide was detected by bioassay, chemiluminescence or by mass spectrometry. Release of NO from the endothelial cells induced by bradykinin and the calcium ionophore A23187 was reversibly enhanced by infusions of L-arginine and L-citrulline, but not D-arginine or other close structural analogues. Mass spectrometry studies using 15N-labelled L-arginine indicated that this enhancement was due to the formation of NO from the terminal guanidino nitrogen atom(s) of L-arginine. The strict substrate specificity of this reaction suggests that L-arginine is the precursor for NO synthesis in vascular endothelial cells.