Although GTP, like ATP and UTP, is stored in platelet dense granules, little is known about its vascular effects. The present study was carried out in order to characterize the effects of GTP and related compounds in the rat aorta. Contractions were examined in aortic rings at resting tension. In rings with intact endothelium, GTP, GDP, guanosine 5'-O-(3-thiotriphosphate) (GTP gamma S) and guanosine 5'-O-(2-thiodiphosphate) (GDP beta S) caused small contractions. In endothelium-denuded rings, the contractions were unchanged or increased and persisted after desensitization of P2X-receptors by alpha,beta-methylene ATP. Relaxations were examined in aortic rings precontracted with noradrenaline. In rings with intact endothelium, GTP (EC50 131 microM), GDP (no maximal effect obtained), GTP gamma S (EC50 6.8 microM) and guanosine (EC50 822 microM) caused prominent relaxation, whereas GDP beta S caused further contraction. In endothelium-denuded rings, the relaxant effect of GTP was greatly reduced, that of GDP and guanosine was unchanged, and that of GTP gamma S was abolished. Relaxations by GTP and GTP gamma S in endothelium-intact rings were studied in more detail. The relaxation by GTP was slightly and the relaxation by GTP gamma S greatly reduced after treatment with NG-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester. Pre-exposure to a high concentration of the P2Y-receptor agonist 2-methylthio ATP (MeSATP) did not attenuate the effects of GTP and GTP gamma S. Four compounds previously identified as antagonists at the P2Y- and P2U-receptors of rat aortic endothelium--suramin, reactive blue 2, pyridoxalphosphate-6-azophenyl-2',5'-disulphonate (iso-PPADS) and 5,5'-(1,1'-biphenyl-4,4'-diylbisazo)-bis-7-amino-6- hydroxynaphthalene-1,4-disulphonate (NH05)--were tested against GTP and GTP gamma S. Suramin, reactive blue 2 and iso-PPADS were much less potent against GTP and GTP gamma S than previously found against (the P2Y effect of) MeSATP. Suramin, iso-PPADS and NH05 were about as potent against GTP and GTP gamma S as previously found against (the P2U effect of) UTP and in particular ATP. It is concluded that guanine nucleotides can cause both contraction and relaxation of the rat aorta. The high concentrations of GTP and GDP required, and in the case of contraction the small size of the response, make a physiological role of the vascular effects of these nucleotides unlikely. GTP and GTP gamma S elicit endothelium-dependent relaxation through P2U-receptors. GTP in addition relaxes the aorta through smooth muscle receptors, possibly by way of its degradation product guanosine. The stable analog GTP gamma S is a relatively potent and selective agonist for the endothelial P2U-receptor.