Soluble guanylate cyclase (sGC) is a heterodimeric hemoprotein that catalyzes the conversion of GTP to cGMP. Upon binding NO to its heme cofactor, purified sGC was activated 300-fold. sGC was only activated 67-fold by nitroglycerin (GTN) and Cys; and in the absence of Cys, GTN did not activate sGC. Electronic absorption spectroscopy studies showed that upon NO binding, the Soret of ferrous sGC shifted from 431 to 399 nm. The data also revealed that activation of sGC by GTN/Cys was not via the expected ferrous heme-NO species as indicated by the absence of the 399 nm heme Soret. Furthermore, EPR studies of the reaction of GTN/Cys with sGC confirmed that no ferrous heme-NO species was formed but that there was heme oxidation. Potassium ferricyanide is known to oxidize ferrous sGC to the ferric oxidation state. Spectroscopic and activity data for the reactions of sGC with GTN alone or with K(3)Fe(CN)(6) were indistinguishable. These data suggest the following: 1) GTN/Cys do not activate sGC via GTN biotransformation to NO in vitro, and 2) in the absence of added thiol, GTN oxidizes sGC.