.N = O synthase catalyzes the oxidation of one of the two chemically equivalent guanido nitrogens of L-arginine to nitric oxide (.N = O). NG-Methyl-L-arginine has been previously characterized as a potent competitive inhibitor of both major types of .N = O synthases. Initial rate kinetics were performed with a spectrophotometric assay based on the oxidation of oxy- to methemoglobin by .N = O. NG-Methyl-L-arginine was a competitive inhibitor of .N = O synthase activity derived from activated murine macrophages with a Ki of 6.2 microM. When the enzyme was pre-incubated in the presence of the required cofactors NADPH and tetrahydrobiopterin, time- and concentration-dependent irreversible inactivation of the activity was observed. At 37 degrees C the kinact was 0.050 min-1. This inactivation process exhibited substrate protection, saturation kinetics and required the cofactors necessary for enzymatic turnover. These data indicate that NG-methyl-L-arginine acts as a mechanism-based enzyme inactivator of murine macrophage .N = O synthase.