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We present the results of optical studies on the properties of GaN grown by low‐pressure metalorganic chemical‐vapor deposition, with emphasis on the issues vital to device applications such as stimulated emission and laser action as well as carrier relaxation dynamics. By optical pumping, stimulated emission and lasing were investigated over a wide temperature range up to 420 K. Using a picosecond streak camera, the free and bound exciton emission decay times were examined. In addition, the effects of temperature and pressure on the optical interband transitions and the transitions associated with impurity/defect states were studied using a variety of spectroscopic methods, including photoluminescence and photoreflectance. The fundamental band gap of GaN was mapped out as a function of temperature using the empirical Varshni relation. The pressure coefficient of the gap was determined using diamond‐anvil pressure‐cell technique. The hydrostatic deformation potential for the direct Γ band gap was also derived from the experimental results. © 1996 American Institute of Physics.