The ionic mechanisms by which nitric oxide (NO) or a related compound mediates the inhibitory junction potentials (IJPs) of the opossum esophageal circular smooth muscle were studied using microelectrodes and double sucrose gap. The NO donors, 3-morpholino-sydnonimine hydrochloride and sodium nitroprusside, induced 15- to 20-mV hyperpolarizations that reversed near the potassium equilibrium potential as did the IJPs. They inhibited the IJPs and decreased electrotonic potentials (increased conductance) even during restoration of the resting membrane potential by application of depolarizing current. Quinine was more efficacious than apamin in inhibiting the IJPs or NO donor hyperpolarizations, whereas the other K+ channel blockers tested (tetraethylammonium, charybdotoxin, 4-aminopyridine, Cs+, and glibenclamide) were without effect. Glibenclamide abolished the hyperpolarizing effects of the K+ channel opener BRL-34915. Low Cl- Krebs (isethionate substitutions) caused hyperpolarizations, increased electrotonic potentials, and reduced IJPs. The neural blockers, tetrodotoxin, omega-conotoxin GVIA, and N omega-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester, inhibited IJPs but not the responses to NO donors, indicating a postjunctional effect. Methylene blue and cystamine, soluble guanylate cyclase inhibitors, suppressed IJPs and responses to NO donors. We conclude that NO mediates esophageal IJPs, which depend on guanosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate elevation and activation of quinine- and apamin-sensitive K+ channels.