The generation of nitrite (NO(2) (-)) was used as an index of the production of nitric oxide by human and rat polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN) and rat peritoneal macrophages. Human peripheral blood PMN did not produce significant levels of NO(2) (-). Attempts to induce NO(2) (-) generation in human PMN by incubation with GM-CSF (1 nM), TNFalpha (0.3 nM), endotoxin (1 mug/ml) or formyl-Met-Leu-Phe (100 nM) for up to 16 h were not successful. Addition of human PMN primed by GM-CSF (1 nM) to rabbit aortic ring preparations precontracted with phenylephrine had no effect on tone. In contrast to these observations, PMN, isolated from the peritoneum of oyster glycogen treated rats, generated NO(2) (-) via a pathway sensitive to inhibition by the nitric oxide synthase inhibitor, N(G)-monomethyl L-arginine. However, peripheral blood rat PMN obtained from the same animals did not produce NO(2) (-), even during prolonged incubation for periods of up to 16 h. It is suggested that detectable NO production by PMN requires NO synthase activity to be induced either by the process of PMN migration or by exposure to certain cytokines produced locally at the site of inflammation.