Polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNS) have been implicated as cellular mediators of hepatic injury in models of inflammation in vivo. In vitro, hepatocyte killing by activated PMNs is mediated in part by proteases, but the role of nitric oxide is unknown. NO is produced by PMNs and hepatocytes and can act either to damage or protect in various models of toxicity. Therefore, we tested the hypothesis that NO is important in PMN-mediated hepatocyte killing in vitro. Freshly isolated hepatocytes from rat liver and PMNs elicited from rat peritoneum were cultured together or alone for 16 hours. Both cell types spontaneously released NO, estimated as its stable breakdown product, nitrite. Accumulation of nitrite in medium from hepatocyte cultures was augmented threefold by incubation with L-arginine and was completely inhibited by treatment with the nitric oxide synthase (NOS) inhibitor NG-methyl-L-arginine (NMA). Nitrite release in PMN cultures was unaffected by L-arginine addition and only partially inhibited by NMA. In PMN: hepatocyte cocultures (10:1), accumulation of nitrite was additive relative to cells cultured separately. Incubation with NMA blocked nitrite production completely in cocultures, whereas L-arginine caused a two-fold increase in nitrite. Addition of PMN stimulants, N-formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine (FMLP), or phorbol myristate acetate (PMA), caused increased release of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) activity into medium from hepatocytes cultured with PMNs but not from hepatocytes cultured alone; this indicated that injury to hepatocytes was due to activated PMNS. However, neither FMLP nor PMA significantly altered nitrite release from cocultures. Despite the alterations in NO production induced by addition of NMA or L-arginine, neither agent altered the release of ALT from hepatocytes in coculture with activated PMNs. Thus, PMNs and hepatocytes provided NO in vitro, but neither suppression nor elevation of NO production affected PMN-mediated hepatocyte killing. Accordingly, NO is not involved in the mechanisms by which FMLP-or PMA-stimulated PMNs mediate hepatocyte injury in vitro.