Nitric oxide (NO) produces rapid osteoclast detachment and contraction in vitro, and this effect is accompanied by a profound inhibition of bone resorption. Work by others has confirmed these findings in vivo: inhibition of NO synthase [NOS; L-arginine, NADPH: oxygen oxidoreductase (NO-forming), EC 18.104.22.168] in normal rats is followed by increased bone resorption reflected by a marked loss in bone mineral density. In our present study, immunocytochemistry and Northern blotting show the presence of the constitutive calcium-sensitive NOS isoform (cNOS) in normal rat osteoclasts and in the human preosteoclast cell line (FLG 29.1). The inducible NOS isoform (iNOS) was also clearly demonstrable in the rat cells especially after treatment with gamma interferon (IFN-gamma) and bacterial wall products [lipopolysaccharide (LPS)], while a basal level of transcript was detected in the untreated human preosteoclast line. However NADPH-diaphorase activity was intense only in neonatal rat osteoclasts attached to bone, perhaps reflecting either enhancement of cNOS activity by calcium or increased amounts of the inducible isoform in activated osteoclasts in situ compared with isolated neonatal rat osteoclasts. These actively resorb devitalized bone but the untreated cells contain relatively low levels of NOS; they are extremely sensitive to inhibition by NO. The iNOS inhibitor aminoguanidine markedly enhances in vitro resorption by activated NOS-rich chick osteoclasts and by normal rat osteoclasts treated with LPS or IFN-gamma. In contrast, the nonselective NOS inhibitor NG-monomethyl-L-arginine inhibits resorption by untreated neonatal rat osteoclasts. Thus, osteoclast function may require intermittent calcium-stimulated increases in NO production by cNOS against a basal inhibitory background activity of the iNOS isoform. However, bone resorption depends on precursor replication and on the activity of the mature cells, and we found that the NO donor 3-morpholinosydnonimine (SIN-1) (50 microM) profoundly depressed replication in the human preosteoclast line. Taken together, these results strongly suggest that NO maintains a central control of bone resorption in both avian and mammalian species by exerting a powerful tonic restraint of osteoclast numbers and activity. The presence of NOS in human cells implies a similar function in man and that conventional views of calcium homoeostasis and skeletal metabolism will need substantial revision. Since NO also influences behavior of the osteoblast, the bone-forming cell, in vitro, a similar effect in vivo might imply a general influence on bone remodeling.