Nitric oxide has been put forward as an important inhibitory neurotransmitter in the gut. Nitric oxide synthase-containing neurons were visualized by immunocytochemistry using antibodies against neuronal nitric oxide synthase or by beta-nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate diaphorase staining in whole mounts and cryostat sections from the gastrointestinal tract and pancreas of several mammals (mouse, rat, hamster, guinea-pig, cat and man). Nitric oxide synthase-containing neuronal cell bodies were numerous in the myenteric but fewer in the submucous ganglia all along the gut of all species. Varicose nerve terminals formed extensive networks in the circular smooth muscle and the myenteric ganglia. Nitric oxide synthase-containing nerve terminals were frequently found around the Brunner glands in the duodenum; scattered nerve terminals were also found in the gastric and colonic mucosa and around blood vessels in the submucosa all along the gut. In the rat small and large intestine nitric oxide synthase-containing submucous neurons terminated within the mucosa/submucosa and nitric oxide synthase-containing myenteric neurons issued short descending projections, approximately 3 mm, to the smooth muscle and other myenteric ganglia. In the pancreas of all species nitric oxide synthase-containing nerve cell bodies were regularly seen in intrapancreatic ganglia. Positive nerve fibers were mainly found within nerve trunks in interlobular spaces and as delicate fibers within the islets. Double staining for nitric oxide synthase and neuropeptides in intestine and pancreas of rat, guinea-pig and man revealed that only occasionally the nitric oxide synthase-containing nerve cell bodies stored in addition vasoactive intestinal peptide and neuropeptide Y, or enkephalin. However, nitric oxide synthase-containing nerve terminals, particularly those in the circular muscle of the gut, frequently contained vasoactive intestinal peptide/neuropeptide Y (rat and man) or vasoactive intestinal peptide/enkephalin (guinea-pig). In intrapancreatic ganglia few nitric oxide synthase-containing nerve cell bodies were also vasoactive intestinal peptide-immunoreactive. Coexistence of nitric oxide synthase and vasoactive intestinal peptide in nerve terminals could here be detected around blood vessels and interlobular ducts. The distribution of nitric oxide synthase indicates a major role of nitric oxide in the regulation of gut motility; a role in the regulation of blood flow and secretion in both gut and pancreas is also likely.