The role of the sympathetic adrenergic nerves in mediating the constant tone of penile flaccidity and returning the erect penis to its flaccid state is fairly well established. However, it is not yet known whether additional nonadrenergic transmitters might be involved in this process. Endothelin 1 (ET-1), a 21-amino-acid peptide with potent and long-lasting vasoconstrictor activity, may be one of the factors contributing to such control. The present study was undertaken to determine whether plasma levels of ET-1 changed during flaccidity, tumescence, rigidity, and detumescence. We determined plasma levels of ET-1 in the peripheral and cavernosal blood of 32 potent adult male volunteers, in whom penile tumescence and erection were elicited by exposure to visual and tactile erotic stimuli. Whole blood was aspirated from the corpus cavernosum and the cubital vein, and ET-1 was quantified in plasma aliquots obtained from the blood samples. Using the organ bath technique, we evaluated the contractile effects of ET-1 and norepinephrine (NE) on isolated human corpus cavernosum musculature. No significant change in ET-1 levels was observed in the peripheral or cavernosal blood in the process of developing erection, rigidity, or detumescence. The mean plasma level of ET-1 was 0.2-0.7 fmol/ml. In the organ bath, ET-1 elicited concentration-dependent contractions of isolated human corpus cavernosum, which were much more pronounced than those evoked by the adrenergic agonist NE. Our data indicate that despite the in vitro efficacy of ET-1 in stimulating contractile activity in isolated human cavernous smooth muscle, the peptide may not be of ultimate importance for the mechanism of flaccidity and detumescence in healthy males. Nevertheless, the exact role of ETs in the control of penile smooth muscle tone remains to be established.