Experiments were designed to determine how isoproterenol affects the cell membrane potential of smooth muscle cells of the canine saphenous vein. Measurements of membrane potential were performed using glass microelectrodes. Isoproterenol (10(-9) to 10(-6) M) caused sustained, concentration-dependent membrane hyperpolarizations in tissues with and without endothelium. ICI 118,551 (a selective beta 2-adrenoceptor antagonist), but not atenolol (a selective beta 1-adrenoceptor antagonist), abolished the hyperpolarization to isoproterenol. Forskolin, an activator of adenylate cyclase, produced sustained hyperpolarizations, which were not mimicked by 1,9-dideoxyforskolin. Incubation with either ouabain or extracellular K(+)-free solution did not inhibit the electrical response to isoproterenol. Glibenclamide (a selective ATP-sensitive K+ channel antagonist) attenuated the hyperpolarizations induced by either isoproterenol or forskolin, whereas charybdotoxin (an inhibitor of large conductance Ca(++)-activated K+ channels) did not. These findings suggest that isoproterenol opens ATP-sensitive K+ channels indirectly through activation of adenylate cyclase in the smooth muscle of the canine saphenous vein. The adrenergic receptor involved belongs to the beta 2-adrenoceptor subtype.