In this study, we investigated the relaxant effect of adenosine receptor agonists on KCl-precontracted airway smooth muscle from rabbits and characterized the type of receptor involved in bronchorelaxation in the presence and absence of epithelium. We further defined the role of epithelium-derived relaxing factor, i.e., nitric oxide (NO), on these responses. In both epithelium-intact and -denuded tertiary airway rings from rabbits, the adenosine receptor agonists 2-[p-(2-carboxyethyl)]phenylethylamino-5-N'-ethylcarboxamidoadenos ine (CGS-21680), 5'-(N-ethyl-carboxamido)adenosine (NECA), 2-chloroadenosine (CAD), and (-)-N6-(2-phenylisopropyl)adenosine (R-PIA) relaxed airway smooth muscle with a potency order of CGS-21680 > NECA > CAD > R-PIA. A 98.5, 89.7, 73.2, and 64.7% relaxation was observed at 10(-5) M by CGS-21680, NECA, CAD, and R-PIA in the epithelium-intact bronchial rings, respectively. The 50% maximum effective concentration (EC50; x 10(-7) M) values for CGS-21680, NECA, CAD, and R-PIA were 2, 4, 9, and 80, respectively. Denuded rings, however, showed much less relaxant responses to various adenosine agonists compared with epithelium-intact rings. The adenosine receptor antagonist 8-(sulfophenyl)theophylline significantly attenuated the relaxant responses to all the agonists in the epithelium-intact and -denuded rings. The epithelium-dependent relaxant effect of the agonists in airway rings was inhibited by NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (L-NMMA; 30 microM). The EC50 (x 10(-6) M) values for CGS-21680, NECA, CAD, and R-PIA in the presence of inhibitor were 5.5, 8, 30, and 200, respectively. The L-NMMA produced an insignificant inhibitory effect in the epithelium-denuded rings. L-Arginine but not D-arginine (100 microM) reversed the inhibitory effect of L-NMMA on adenosine agonist-induced relaxation. In primary epithelial cells in culture, CGS-21680 (10(-5) M) induced a fourfold increase in NO production over the control. The CGS-21680-induced NO production in epithelial cells was significantly inhibited by NG-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (L-NAME). Moreover, L-arginine reversed the inhibitory effect of L-NAME in the epithelial cells. The data suggest that adenosine relaxes rabbit airway smooth muscle through an A2 adenosine receptor and the epithelium serves as a source of NO.