Endothelial cells (EC) from diabetic BioBreeding (BB) rats have an impaired ability to produce NO. This deficiency is not due to a defect in the constitutive isoform of NO synthase in EC (ecNOS) or alterations in intracellular calcium, calmodulin, NADPH or arginine levels. Instead, ecNOS cannot produce sufficient NO because of a deficiency in tetrahydrobiopterin (BH(4)), a cofactor necessary for enzyme activity. EC from diabetic rats exhibited only 12% of the BH(4) levels found in EC from normal animals or diabetes-prone animals which did not develop disease. As a result, NO synthesis by EC of diabetic rats was only 18% of that for normal animals. Increasing BH(4) levels with sepiapterin increased NO production, suggesting that BH(4) deficiency is a metabolic basis for impaired endothelial NO synthesis in diabetic BB rats. This deficiency is due to decreased activity of GTP-cyclohydrolase I, the first and rate-limiting enzyme in the de novo biosynthesis of BH(4). GTP-cyclohydrolase activity was low because of a decreased expression of the protein in the diabetic cells.