In rat portal vein and aorta, pinacidil (0.3-100 microM) inhibited spontaneous mechanical activity (portal vein) and responses to norepinephrine (0.001-100 microM) and to KCl (5-80 mM). Pinacidil and its analogs P1060 and P1368 inhibited established contractions to 20 mM KCl but had little effect on responses to 80 mM KCl. The order of spasmolytic potency was P1060 greater than pinacdil greater than P1368. Intracellular electrical recording showed that in a portal vein, pinacidil (0.3-10 microM) abolished spontaneous electrical activity and hyperpolarised the cells to the region of the calculated EK. Pinacidil (3-10 microM) produced a similar hyperpolarisation in rat aorta, and in both tissues the hyperpolarisation was maintained in the continuing presence of pinacidil. Using 86Rb as a K+ marker, pinacidil increased 86Rb exchange in both the rat portal vein and aorta. The analog P1060 also increased 86Rb efflux in the rat portal vein; P1368 had no significant effect. It is concluded that the inhibitory effects of pinacidil in rat blood vessels are associated with the opening of 86Rb-permeable K+ channels. This mechanism produces a low-resistance pathway in the membrane and this inhibits the ability of pressor agents to produce smooth muscle contraction.