The events which trigger the activation of nematocytes are still poorly understood, and no evidence has been presented so far on either the nature of the activatory signal for the nematocyte or the transduction mechanism. In this paper, we present evidence for a role of NO in the discharge of acontial nematocytes. A citrulline-forming enzymatic activity, significantly decreased by the NO synthase inhibitor N-omega-nitro-L-arginine (L-NNA) and by the Ca2+-chelating agent EGTA, was found in the acontial tissue of Aiptasia diaphana. Staining for NADPH diaphorase suggested that NO synthase is localized in supporting cells surrounding the nematocytes. The ability of K+ to induce the discharge of nematocytes in situ could be abolished by preincubation of acontia with L-NNA and restored by addition of excess L-arginine. Direct measurements on K+-induced discharging nematocytes in situ confirmed that NO was released by stimulated acontia. Both in situ and isolated acontial nematocytes promptly discharged when perfused with an aqueous solution of NO. The responsiveness to NO of isolated nematocytes was not abolished in Ca2+-free medium or by treatment with La3+, a well-known Ca2+ channel inhibitor. Since the discharge of in situ nematocytes is known to be Ca2+-dependent, it is proposed that activation of in situ acontial nematocytes is triggered by a Ca2+-dependent release of NO from supporting and/or sensory cells.