1. We studied the effects of 3-(5'-hydroxymethyl-2'furyl)-1-benzyl indazole (YC-1) on the activity of purified soluble guanylyl cyclase (sGC), the formation of guanosine-3':5' cyclic monophosphate (cyclic GMP) in vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMC), and on the tone of rabbit isolated aortic rings preconstricted by phenylephrine (PE). In addition, we assessed the combined effect of YC-1, and either NO donors, or superoxide anions on these parameters. 2. YC-1 elicited a direct concentration-dependent activation of sGC (EC50 18.6 +/- 2.0 microM), which was rapid in onset and quickly reversible upon dilution. YC-1 altered the enzyme kinetics with respect to GTP by decreasing KM and increasing Vmax. Activation of sGC by a combination of sodium nitroprusside (SNP) and YC-1 was superadditive at low and less than additive at high concentrations, indicating a synergistic activation of the enzyme by both agents. A specific inhibitor of sGC, 1H-(1,2,4)-oxdiazolo-(4,3-a)-6-bromo-quinoxazin-1-one (NS 2028), abolished activation of the enzyme by either compound. 3. YC-1 induced a concentration-dependent increase in intracellular cyclic GMP levels in rat cultured aortic VSMC, which was completely inhibited by NS 2028. YC-1 applied at the same concentration as SNP elicited 2.5 fold higher cyclic GMP formation. Cyclic GMP-increases in response to SNP and YC-1 were additive. 4. YC-1 relaxed preconstricted endothelium-denuded rabbit aortic rings in a concentration-dependent manner (50% at 20 microM) and markedly increased cyclic GMP levels. Relaxations were inhibited by NS 2028. A concentration of YC-1 (3 microM), which elicited only minor effects on relaxation and cyclic GMP, increased the vasodilator potency of SNP and nitroglycerin (NTG) by 10 fold and markedly enhanced SNP- and NTG-induced cyclic GMP formation. 5. Basal and YC-1-stimulated sGC activity was sensitive to inhibition by superoxide (O-2) generated by xanthine/xanthine oxidase, and was protected from this inhibition by superoxide dismutase (SOD). YC-1-stimulated sGC was also sensitive to inhibition by endogenously generated (O-2 in rat preconstricted endothelium-denuded aortic rings. Relaxation to YC-1 was significantly attenuated in aortae from spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR), which generated O-2 at a higher rate than aortae from normotensive Wistar Kyoto rats (WKY). SOD restored the vasodilator responsiveness of SHR rings to YC-1. 6. In conclusion, these results indicate that YC-1 is an NO-independent, O-2-sensitive, direct activator of sGC in VSMC and exerts vasorelaxation by increasing intracellular cyclic GMP levels. The additive or even synergistic responses to NO-donors and YC-1 in cultured VSMC and isolated aortic rings apparently reflect the direct synergistic action of YC-1 and NO on the sGC. The synergism revealed in this in vitro study suggests that low doses of YC-1 may be of therapeutic value by permitting the reduction of nitrovasodilator dosage.