1. The mechanism of the sustained acetylcholine-induced endothelium-dependent hyperpolarization (EDH) in intact rat small mesenteric arteries prestimulated with noradrenaline (10(-6) M) was investigated by means of the single microelectrode voltage-clamp method. 2. The vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs) in this preparation are poorly or even not coupled for the reasons that: (1) the mean input resistance Rlnp of the clamped vascular smooth muscle increases from 120 M omega under control conditions to 440 M omega after application of K+ channel blocking drugs, (2) the voltage relaxation after injection of hyperpolarizing currents has a monoexponential time course and is linearly dependent on Rlnp, and (3) voltage steps induced by current-clamp steps are not transferred to locations in the vascular musculature 120 microns apart from the current injecting microelectrode. 3. Sustained (> 5 min) application of ACh (10(-5) M) hyperpolarized the VSMCs by induction of a hyperpolarizing current. This effect was completely blocked by the inhibitor of the nitric oxide (NO) synthase L-NAME (10(-3) M) but not by the inhibitor of the soluble guanylate cyclase (sGCl) Methylene Blue (MB, 10(-4) M). 4. Application of the NO donor sodium nitroprusside (SNP, 10(-6) M) for more than 5 min mimicked the induction of the endothelium-dependent hyperpolarizing current in vessels with destroyed endothelium. The reversal potential of this current is dependent on the extracellular K+ concentration. The effect of SNP could also not be blocked by MB. 5. The blockers of ATP-dependent and Ca(2+)-dependent K+ channels, glibenclamide (Glb, 10(-5) M) and charybdotoxin (CTX, 5 x 10(-8) M), respectively, blocked a hyperpolarizing current in the VSMCs similar to the ACh- or SNP-induced current. 6. The isolated application of either Glb or CTX did not block the activation of the hyperpolarizing current by SNP. Only the combined administration of Glb and CTX blocked the SNP-induced current completely. 7. Our results suggest that in rat small mesenteric artery, ACh hyperpolarizes the VSMCs tonically by activating both ATP- and Ca(2+)-dependent K+ currents, only via release of NO from the endothelium without need for activation of the sGCl.