Because the kidneys are vasodilated and the endogenous production of nitric oxide is increased in gravid rats, we tested whether nitric oxide mediates the renal vasodilatory response to pregnancy. Chronically instrumented, conscious rats of gestational days 12-14 were studied concurrently with age-matched virgin control animals. GFR and effective renal plasma flow (ERPF) were determined by the renal clearances of inulin and para-aminohippurate before and during acute infusion of N omega-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (NAME; 2, 20, and 50 micrograms/min) or NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (100 micrograms/min). Baseline GFR and ERPF were significantly increased, and effective renal vascular resistance was decreased by 30-40% in gravid rats compared with virgin controls. During infusion of all three dosages of NAME and NG-monomethyl-L-arginine, effective renal vascular resistance, GFR, and ERPF were equalized in the pregnant and virgin rats (the only exception being GFR during the 20 micrograms/min NAME infusion). When compared with virgin rats, the gravid animals were more responsive to nitric oxide synthase inhibition, showing a significantly greater decline in GFR and ERPF and rise in effective renal vascular resistance at each timepoint during the infusion of inhibitor. To exclude the possibility that nonspecific renal vasoconstriction per se led to equalization of renal function in the two groups of rats, we investigated angiotensin II. In contrast to the results observed with nitric oxide synthase inhibitors, pregnant rats were less responsive to the renal vasoconstrictory effects of angiotensin II, such that the baseline differences in renal parameters measured before infusion of the hormone were increased during the infusion. To determine whether nitric oxide synthase was inhibited to a similar extent in gravid and virgin rats, aortic and renal cortical cGMP content was assayed ex vivo at the end of inhibitor infusion. The lower 2-micrograms/min dose of NAME consistently reduced cGMP content of these tissues to comparable levels in the two groups of rats. In conclusion, we suggest that nitric oxide mediates reduced renal vascular resistance and hyperfiltration during pregnancy in conscious rats.