Myoglobin may serve a variety of functions in muscular oxygen supply, such as O(2) storage, facilitated O(2) diffusion, and myoglobin-mediated oxidative phosphorylation. We studied the functional consequences of a myoglobin deficiency on cardiac function by producing myoglobin-knockout (myo(-/-)) mice. To genetically inactivate the myoglobin gene, exon 2 encoding the heme binding site was deleted in embryonic stem cells via homologous recombination. Myo(-/-) mice are viable, fertile, and without any obvious signs of functional limitations. Hemoglobin concentrations were significantly elevated in myo(-/-) mice. Cardiac function and energetics were analyzed in isolated perfused hearts under resting conditions and during beta-adrenergic stimulation with dobutamine. Myo(-/-) hearts showed no alteration in contractile parameters either under basal conditions or after maximal beta-adrenergic stimulation (200 nM dobutamine). Tissue levels of ATP, phosphocreatine ((31)P-NMR), and myocardial O(2) consumption were not altered. However, coronary flow [6.4 +/- 1.3 ml.min(-1).g(-1) [wild-type (WT)] vs. 8.5 +/- 2.4 ml.min(-1).g(-1) [myo(-/-)] [and coronary reserve [17.1 +/- 2.1 (WT) vs. 20.8 +/- 1.1 (myo(-/-) ml. min(-1).g(-1) were significantly elevated in myo(-/-) hearts. Histological examination revealed that capillary density also was increased in myo(-/-) hearts [3,111 +/- 400 mm(-2) (WT) vs. 4,140 +/- 140 mm(-2) (Myo(-/-)]. These data demonstrate that disruption of myoglobin results in the activation of multiple compensatory mechanisms that steepen the pO(2) gradient and reduce the diffusion path length for O(2) between capillary and the mitochondria; this suggests that myoglobin normally is important for the delivery of oxygen.