Estrogen, like other steroids, may induce rapid nongenomic cellular effects. We studied the effect on intracellular cAMP of short-term exposure (5 min) of cultured rat pulmonary vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMC) to estradiol 17 beta. At confluence, VSMC were incubated in phosphate buffer saline for 1 hr before exposure to different hormones. The reaction was stopped with 0.1 N HCl and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) was measured by radioimmunoassay. The 5-min incubation with estradiol 17 beta (0.3-30 microM) significantly increased basal intracellular cAMP in a concentration-dependent manner. The stimulatory effect of estradiol on cAMP was time-dependent, increasing with prolonged exposure to the hormone, and was not affected by the protein synthesis inhibitor, actinomycin D (5 micrograms/ml), at 5 and 30 min. Comparable concentrations of testosterone or estradiol 17 alpha had no significant effect on cAMP. The estrogen receptor partial agonist, tamoxifen also significantly increased basal cAMP in a concentration-dependent manner, but inhibited the effect of estradiol. Furthermore, forskolin elicited a concentration-dependent increase in cAMP (396.6 +/- 53% at 10 microM concentration), which was significantly potentiated in presence of estradiol. The effect of estradiol is unlikely to be mediated by G-protein activation, because the G protein inhibitor, pertussis toxin (100 ng/ml), did not significantly affect estradiol-induced increase in cAMP. Removal of Ca++ from the incubation medium inhibited the stimulatory effect of estradiol 17 beta suggesting that estradiol may increase pulmonary VSMC cAMP via a Ca(++)-dependent pathway. We suggest that the effect of estradiol 17 beta in these experiments is nongenomic in nature, and is possibly mediated by direct interaction of the hormone with specific membrane binding sites.