Recent studies indicate that nitric oxide (NO) and guanosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate (cGMP) may inhibit the proliferation of vascular smooth muscle cells (SMC) in vitro. The purpose of this study was to investigate the mechanism of NO- and cGMP-dependent inhibition of cultured rat aortic SMC. The cytokine interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta) inhibited serum- and platelet-derived growth factor-stimulated [3H]thymidine incorporation into DNA in subcultured rat aortic SMC. Incubation with IL-1 beta for 24 h markedly increased cGMP levels but not adenosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate (cAMP) levels. However, the IL-1 beta-induced increase in cGMP was correlated with an activation of the cAMP-dependent protein kinase (cAMP kinase) activity ratio. The activation of the cAMP kinase was prevented by treatments that blocked NO and cGMP production. The NO-generating vasodilator, S-nitroso-N-acetylpenicillamine (SNAP) also inhibited DNA synthesis and elevated cGMP levels. The inhibition of DNA synthesis by both IL-1 beta and SNAP was observed only when cGMP levels were elevated to high levels (10-fold or more). As was the case for IL-1 beta, SNAP increased the activity ratio of cAMP kinase. Selective inhibition of cAMP kinase using (R)-p-bromoadenosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphorothioate prevented the inhibition of proliferation by IL-1 beta. By contrast, the inhibitor of the cGMP-dependent protein kinase, (R)-p-bromoguanosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphorothioate, had no effect on IL-1 beta-induced inhibition of cellular proliferation. These studies suggest that cGMP-dependent activation of the cAMP kinase may be responsible in part at least for the NO-dependent inhibition of proliferation of subcultured rat aortic SMC.