Prostaglandins appear to play a role in maintaining patency of the ductus arteriosus during gestation. Prostacyclin (PGI2) is the major product of prostaglandin biosynthesis in the lamb ductus arteriosus. This factor is both a vasodilator and a potent inhibitor of human platelet aggregation. We used inhibition of platelet aggregation as a sensitive bioassay to measure PGI2 generation in rings of ductus arteriosus from fetal lambs. Mechanical manipulation accelerated the rate of PGI2 released from the tissue 10 to 50 times. Tranylcypromine, an antagonist of prostacyclin synthetase, suppressed production of PGI2 by rings of ductus arteriosus. Rings from immature animals (98-103 days gestation, term is 150 days) released significantly more PGI2 (190 +/- 28 ng/g wet weight/ 20 min, n = 9) than did those from near term animals (136-146 days; 106 +/- 23 ng/g wet weight/20 min, n = 10). The capacity of the ductus arteriosus to generate more PGI2 earlier in gestation is consistent with the observation that vessels from animals less than 110 days gestation have a significantly larger indomethacin induced contraction than do vessels near term.