The purpose of this study was to examine nitric oxide synthase (NOS) expression in the retinal vasculature in vivo and to study nitric oxide (NO) synthesis in vitro in retinal microvascular endothelial cells and pericytes. Immunoreactivity was examined using a polyclonal antibody raised against porcine cerebellar nitric oxide synthase on frozen sections cut from postmortem human retina and trypsin digests of rat retinal vasculature. The synthesis of nitrite, a stable end product from the interaction of NO with molecular oxygen, was measured in culture supernatants of retinal microvascular cells under basal and stimulated conditions. Expression of constitutive NOS (cNOS) in these cells was examined using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Strong NOS immunoreactivity was seen in the endothelium of choroidal and retinal vessels. Nitrite synthesis was documented in supernatants from cultured microvascular endothelial cells which increased significantly following exposure to A23187 and cytokines. Nitrite synthesis by pericytes was not detectable under basal conditions or following stimulation with A23187. Bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a potent inducer of NOS, caused an increase in nitrite concentrations in pericyte supernatants 24 h after stimulation suggesting the presence of inducible NOS (iNOS). PCR amplification confirmed the presence of the cNOS gene in endothelial cells but not in pericytes. Retinal vascular endothelial cells express significant amounts of NOS constitutively in vivo and in vitro which is activated by Ca++. Also, endothelial cells can be stimulated to synthesize iNOS by cytokines. Retinal pericytes too show iNOS activity following exposure to bacterial LPS. These results suggest that the nitric oxide synthase/nitric oxide pathway may be involved in the regulation of microcirculatory haemodynamics in the retina.