The studies were performed in the rabbit internal anal sphincter (IAS) smooth muscle strips to examine the influence of the heme oxygenase inhibitor, [zinc protporphyrin (ZnPP IX)], on basal tone. ZnPP IX produced a concentration-dependent fall in the basal tone and was the focus of our investigation. To examine the mechanism of the fall in IAS tone by ZnPP IX, the effect of different concentrations of ZnPP IX on basal IAS tone and the release of nitric oxide were examined before and after the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin and various nitric oxide synthase (NOS) inhibitors. The inhibitory effect of ZnPP IX was blocked by the NOS inhibitors L-NG-nitroarginine, NG-monomethyl-L- arginine and L-N5-(1-iminoethyl)ornithine and the neurotoxin TTX. The fall in IAS tension by ZnPP IX was accompanied by a release of NO. ZnPP IX(1 x 10(-3)M) caused a fall in IAS tension of 43.7% which was reduced to 16.5% in the presence of L-NG-nitroarginine (1 x 10(-4)M). Furthermore, the fall in IAS tone in the presence of ZnPP IX was restored both by the NOS inhibitors and tetrodotoxin. The basal release of nitric oxide in these experiments was 0.50 +/- 0.07 nmol and in the presence of ZnPP IX (1 x 10(-3)M), it increased to 1.72 +/- 0.28 nmol (more than a 3-fold increase). Thus the fall in the basal IAS tone by ZnPP IX was associated with a release of NO from the myenteric neurons as these effects were significantly blocked by the NOS inhibitors and tetrodotoxin. We conclude that in the rabbit IAS, ZnPP IX causes a fall in the basal IAS tension by the activation of NOS in myenteric neurons. We speculate that in the resting state, the heme oxygenase pathway exerts important counter-regulatory effects on the NOS pathway and when blocked (e.g., by ZnPP IX), the underlying NOS pathway is unmasked leading to a massive and prolonged release of NO. The exact significance of this mechanism remains to be determined.