Endothelins, nitric oxide, and oxygen-derived free radicals decisively regulate vascular tone. An imbalance in the biosynthesis of these substances in pathophysiologic conditions may trigger vasospasm and promote the development of atherosclerosis. Previous studies have shown that oxygen-derived free radicals can increase the synthesis of endothelin-1 in cultured endothelial cells. Interestingly, conditions of increased oxidative stress within smooth muscle cells as induced by angiotensin II infusion or hypercholesterolemia have been shown to be associated with increased autocrine synthesis of endothelin-1. Because endothelin-1 formed in smooth muscle cells can trigger hypersensitivity to vasoconstrictors, we tested whether oxidative stress per se may affect endothelin expression in vascular smooth muscle cells. Cultured human coronary artery smooth muscle cells were exposed to oxidative stress generated by the xanthine/xanthine oxidase reaction or by hydrogen peroxide. Preproendothelin-1 mRNA content was quantitated by means of quantitative polymerase chain reaction and endothelin-1 protein was measured by radioimmunoassay. Incubation with xanthine/xanthine oxidase significantly increased preproendothelin-1 mRNA synthesis, whereas GAPDH remained unchanged. Likewise, xanthine/xanthine oxidase also led to a dose-dependent increase of intracellular endothelin-1. The increase in ET-1 expression induced by xanthine/xanthine oxidase was significantly inhibited by superoxide dismutase but not by catalase. We conclude that oxygen-derived free radicals can stimulate the synthesis of endothelin-1 in endothelial and vascular smooth muscle cells by increasing preproendothelin-1 mRNA content and that this effect is mediated predominantly by superoxide anions. We therefore have identified a new mechanism in the interaction of oxidative stress and endothelin-1 expression in smooth muscle cells that may have important implications in diseases such as atherosclerosis and hypertension.