1. The effects of nitric oxide (NO) on vascular reactivity and platelet function in the obese (cp/cp) and lean (+/?) JCR:LA-cp rats were investigated. 2. Phenylephrine (PE; 0.1 nM-10 microM) induced contraction of isolated aortic rings in both genotypes (cp/cp and +/?) of JCR:LA-cp rats. The sensitivity to contraction with PE was enhanced in cp/cp compared with +/? rings. Rings from both genotypes showed an increased contraction upon removal of the endothelium. 3. Acetylcholine (ACh; 0.1 nM-10 microM)-induced endothelium-dependent relaxation of rings was not significantly different in the two genotypes. Both were inhibited to a similar extent by NG-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (L-NAME; 0.01-1 mM) when administered in vitro. 4. The nitric oxide synthase (NOS) inhibitor (L-NAME; 0.3, 1 or 3 mg ml(-1), p.o.) when administered in vivo increased blood pressure in cp/cp rats but not in +/? rats. 5. L-NAME resulted in greater inhibition of ACh-induced relaxation in cp/cp rings compared with +/? rings. 6. L-NAME treatment in vivo caused a decrease in cyclic GMP and NOS activity in rings from cp/cp but not +/? rats. 7. The NO donor, S-nitroso-N-acetyl-DL-penicillamine (SNAP; 0.1 nM-10 microM)-induced relaxation of rings from +/? rats, an effect enhanced by the treatment with L-NAME in vivo. 8. Oral administration of L-NAME did not enhance the vasorelaxant effect of SNAP on rings of aorta from cp/cp animals. 9. Platelet aggregation and NOS activity were similar in both genotypes and were not modified by oral administration of L-NAME. 10. These results show that unimpaired generation of NO is crucial for maintenance of vascular tone particularly under conditions of vascular insult exemplified by insulin resistance, obesity and dyslipidemia detected in cp/cp rats.