Nitric oxide (NO) has multiple biologic functions: in the brain it acts as a neuronal messenger; elsewhere, it causes smooth muscle relaxation, inhibition of platelet aggregation, inhibition of leukocyte adhesion, inhibition of tumor growth, and microbiostasis. Our studies show that production of NO is responsible for the unusual unresponsiveness of BN rat spleen cells to mitogens. NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (NGMMA), a potent competitive inhibitor for NO synthase, reverses this defect. Lysed RBC or NGMMA were shown to enhance mitogen-induced spleen cell proliferation only one- to twofold in Lewis rats (that have normal mitogen responsiveness) but act to stimulate BN rat T cells by 10- to 100-fold. NGMMA-enhanced proliferation was significantly diminished by prior depletion of macrophages. Surprisingly, NO did not inhibit IL-2 production in 48-h cultures of BN rat spleen cells, and exogenous IL-2 was ineffective in releasing NO-mediated suppression. These studies indicate that NO produced by macrophages can completely and reversibly inhibit T cell proliferation. The BN rat appears to be unique in its production of very high levels of NO, making it an especially useful animal model for studying the biologic control and functional consequences of NO generation.