We tested the hypothesis that expression of inducible nitric oxide synthase (NO-synthase) in response to endotoxin (lipopolysaccharide) produces activation of potassium channels. Contraction of the rat thoracic aorta in response to phenylephrine was measured in vitro after treatment in vivo for 15 hr with vehicle (control) or lipopolysaccharide (10 mg/kg i.p.). Impaired contraction in response to phenylephrine was used as an index of inducible NO-synthase expression, and activation of potassium channels was examined with specific inhibitors. Contraction in response to 10(-5) M phenylephrine (expressed as a percentage of contraction in response to 85 mM KCI) was markedly impaired in lipopolysaccharide-treated rats, compared with control (15 +/- 5% vs. 131 +/- 10%, P < .05, mean +/- S.E.). Expression of inducible NO-synthase mRNA in the vessel wall in lipopolysaccharide-treated rats was confirmed using reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction. Contraction of the aorta in lipopolysaccharide-treated rats was restored to normal by 0.3 mM aminoguanidine (an inhibitor of inducible NO-synthase). Contraction of the aorta in response to phenylephrine, which was inhibited by lipopolysaccharide, was not affected by glibenclamide (an inhibitor of ATP-sensitive potassium channels) but was increased 2-fold (P < .05) by iberiotoxin (50 nM), an inhibitor of Ca(+2)-dependent potassium channels. Relaxation of the aorta in response to sodium nitroprusside, an exogenous donor of nitric oxide, and 8-bromo-cyclic GMP was also inhibited by iberiotoxin. These findings suggest that nitric oxide produced by vascular expression of inducible NO-synthase activates calcium-dependent potassium channels and that this mechanism may contribute to impaired vasoconstrictor responses during sepsis.