The endothelium plays an important role in maintaining vascular homeostasis by synthesizing and releasing several endothelium-derived relaxing factors, such as prostacyclin, nitric oxide (NO), and the previously unidentified endothelium-derived hyperpolarizing factor (EDHF). In this study, we examined our hypothesis that hydrogen peroxide (H(2)O(2)) derived from endothelial NO synthase (eNOS) is an EDHF. EDHF-mediated relaxation and hyperpolarization in response to acetylcholine (ACh) were markedly attenuated in small mesenteric arteries from eNOS knockout (eNOS-KO) mice. In the eNOS-KO mice, vasodilating and hyperpolarizing responses of vascular smooth muscle per se were fairly well preserved, as was the increase in intracellular calcium in endothelial cells in response to ACh. Antihypertensive treatment with hydralazine failed to improve the EDHF-mediated relaxation. Catalase, which dismutates H(2)O(2) to form water and oxygen, inhibited EDHF-mediated relaxation and hyperpolarization, but it did not affect endothelium-independent relaxation following treatment with the K(+) channel opener levcromakalim. Exogenous H(2)O(2) elicited similar relaxation and hyperpolarization in endothelium-stripped arteries. Finally, laser confocal microscopic examination with peroxide-sensitive fluorescence dye demonstrated that the endothelium produced H(2)O(2) upon stimulation by ACh and that the H(2)O(2) production was markedly reduced in eNOS-KO mice. These results indicate that H(2)O(2) is an EDHF in mouse small mesenteric arteries and that eNOS is a major source of the reactive oxygen species.