Adenosine 5'-triphosphate (ATP) has important roles in the cardiovascular system, modulating vascular tone by acting as both a vasoconstrictor and a vasodilator. The dilator function of ATP is traditionally thought to be monophasic and mediated primarily by nitric oxide (NO). Here we have identified the endothelium-dependent biphasic nature of ATP-induced vasodilatation of the rat isolated mesenteric bed and investigated the two distinct pathways involved. ATP, at doses of 1x10(-11) to 1x10(-8) moles, induced transient relaxations that were inhibited by the NO synthase (NOS) inhibitor, N(G)-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (L-NAME: 1x10(-4) M), the soluble guanylyl cyclase inhibitor, 1H-[1,2,4]Oxadiazolo[4,3-a]quinoxalin-1-one (ODQ: 3x10(-6) M) and KCl (6x10(-2) - 1.2x10(-1) M). At doses upwards of 1x10(-8) moles (1x10(-8) - 3x10(-7) moles), ATP also induced prolonged vasodilatations which were unaltered by L-NAME, L-NAME (1x10(-3) M) and indomethacin (1x10(-5) M), or by ODQ, but were abolished in the presence of KCl. In addition, the cannabinoid CB(1) receptor antagonist SR141716A (1x10(-5) M) was found to inhibit the second prolonged phase of vasodilatation. However, at the concentration used SR141716A is reported to be non-selective. A second CB(1) receptor antagonist, AM251 (1x10(-6) M), had a small but significant inhibitory effect on the second phase of ATP-induced vasodilatation. SR141716A, AM251 and KCl (6x10(-2) - 1.2x10(-1) M) all inhibited anandamide-induced relaxation of the isolated mesenteric bed. These observations demonstrate that ATP stimulates vasodilatation of the mesenteric bed by two distinct mechanisms involving the release of NO and an EDHF. In the absence of better pharmacological tools we can only speculate as to the involvement of an endogenous CB(1) receptor ligand in these responses.