The L-arginine:nitric oxide (NO) biosynthetic pathway has been proposed as an important mediator in host defense mechanisms and may therefore play a role in the acute allograft response. We have studied NO generation in liver allograft rejection and determined its value in immunological monitoring. Stable end products of this pathway have been determined serially in 50 primary liver recipients and compared with 2 known mediators and markers of acute allograft rejection (IL-2R positive lymphocytes and circulating TNF alpha). Plasma concentrations of acid-labile nitrosocompounds (NOx), which increased during acute allograft rejection (P < 0.0001), correlated with rejection severity and were reduced after administration of supplemental high dose glucocorticoids. Concentrations were significantly lower in nonrejection graft complications but were elevated during episodes of sepsis. Correlations between plasma NOx levels and circulating TNF-alpha (r = 0.451, P < 0.001) and IL-2R-positive lymphocytes in peripheral blood (r = 0.781, P < 0.001) were demonstrated. In a logistic analysis of these variables, plasma NOx was the most predictive parameter of an episode of acute cellular rejection. Nitric oxide generation in FK506-treated patients was lower compared with patients receiving a CsA-based immunosuppression regimen and was associated with a reduced frequency of acute rejection in the FK506 group. These data are consistent with a role for NO in the cellular alloantigen immune response and indicate that monitoring of plasma levels of NOx may be useful in the detection of acute allograft rejection.