To analyze the potential mediator(s) involved in flow-induced endothelium-dependent vasodilation, we measured the wall tension of intraluminally perfused canine femoral artery segments and compared the content of 6-ketoprostaglandin F1 alpha (determined by radioimmunoassay) and the relaxing activity of the effluent (determined by bioassay on canine coronary artery rings). During perfusion at a steady flow of 2 ml/min the effluent contained 6-keto-prostaglandin F1 alpha and relaxed the bioassay rings. Sudden increase in steady flow rate to 4 ml/min, or the introduction of pulsatile flow, increased the release of 6-keto-prostaglandin F1 alpha and induced further relaxations of the bioassay ring. No relaxations were observed with the effluent passing through a femoral artery segment without endothelium. Indomethacin significantly depressed the release of 6-keto-prostaglandin F1 alpha during increases in flow but had no significant effect on the relaxing activity of the effluent. In the presence of indomethacin, increases in flow produced significant relaxation in the perfused femoral artery segments with endothelium. Superoxide dismutase restored the relaxing activity of the effluent during increases in flow at a transit time of 30 seconds. These data demonstrate that in addition to prostacyclin, flow triggers the release of another relaxing substance (or substances) from vascular endothelial cells that has characteristics similar to the endothelium-derived relaxing factor released by acetylcholine.