We report that atrial natriuretic factor (ANF) inhibits electrically induced cholinergic twitches of longitudinal muscle in whole intestinal segments and myenteric-plexus longitudinal muscle (MPLM) strips from the guinea pig ileum. To elucidate the possible presynaptic mechanism of ANF's action, we studied spontaneous and stimulation-evoked radiolabeled acetylcholine (ACh) outflow from MPLM after incubation with [3H]choline. We developed a method of mounting and treating MPLM preparations, which allowed us, at the same time, to record isometric contractions and to determine [3H]ACh outflow upon electrical stimulation by a train of three pulses. ANF (5 x 10(-8) M), norepinephrine (2 x 10(-7) M) and 8-bromoguanosine 3':5'-cyclic monophosphate (10(-3) M) in nearly equieffective concentrations caused a similar inhibition of cholinergic twitches. However, ANF had no effect on [3H]ACh outflow, whereas norepinephrine was found to suppress [3H]ACh outflow and 8-bromoguanosine 3':5'-cGMP to enhanced [3H]ACh outflow. ANF (5 x 10(-8) M) caused a 7.0-fold increase of cGMP over control values, predominantly in muscle layers, whereas Escherichia coli heat-stable toxin (12.5 U/ml) elicited a 35-fold increment of cGMP in the extramuscular layer. Thus, ANF is able to elevate cGMP in intestinal smooth muscle and to inhibit cholinergic contractions of MPLM. This inhibition is mimicked by exogenous cGMP and by endogenously generated cyclic nucleotides. We suggest that the depressive action of ANF on cholinergic contractions of MPLM is mediated via its postsynaptic impact implicating elevation of cGMP in smooth muscle.