Cytokine induction of calcium-independent nitric oxide synthase is associated with production of large amounts of nitric oxide (NO). NO is a free radical that is rapidly degraded to nitrite and nitrate. Measurement of plasma and urinary nitrate is an indirect marker of NO production and previous studies have demonstrated that plasma nitrate rises with allograft rejection. The purpose of this study was to examine the temporal relationship between the rise in urinary nitrate excretion and the onset of graft rejection, and to determine the effect of conventional immunosuppression on nitrate excretion. The heterotropic model of cardiac transplantation in the rat was used, with Brown-Norway to Lewis allografts and Lewis to Lewis isograft controls. Twenty-four-hour urine specimens were collected before and after transplantation. Urinary nitrate excretion was measured by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. Each group was treated with (1) no immunosuppression, (2) dexamethasone (3 mg/kg), or (3) CsA (10 mg/kg) on days 0, 1, and 2. Time to rejection for untreated allografts was 5.1 +/- 0.1 days, extending to 8.4 +/- 0.5 and 9.6 +/- 0.4 days with dexamethasone and CsA treatment, respectively. There was a significant rise in nitrate excretion on days 4, 7, and 9 for control, dexamethasone-treated, and CsA-treated allografts, respectively, preceding evidence of rejection. Untreated allograft rejection was associated with a peak in nitrate excretion 8 times that of basal excretion by isografts. Treatment of the allografts with dexamethasone and CsA significantly attenuated peak nitrate excretion compared with untreated allografts with a only a 2- to 3-fold rise preceding rejection. Results indicate that allograft rejection is associated with a dramatic increase in peak urinary nitrate excretion that is attenuated by standard immunosuppressive therapy. An increase in nitrate excretion precedes evidence of graft rejection, and may serve as a noninvasive marker of graft rejection.