Atherosclerosis is based on endothelial dysfunction leading to impaired vasomotor function. This is partially due to nitric oxide (NO) depletion caused by oxidative stress. Since the vasoconstrictor endothelin-1 (ET-1) might also be involved in endothelial dysfunction, we investigated whether oxidative stress regulates ET-1 expression in vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMC). Human aortic VSMC were treated with H(2)O(2) (200 microM) for up to 8 h. mRNA expression of preproendothelin (prepro-ET) was analyzed by RT-PCR. ET-1 protein and the marker for oxidative stress, 8-isoprostane, were determined by ELISA. Activity of cytosolic phospholipase A2 (cPLA(2)) as an indicator of ET-1 autocrine activity was measured photometrically. Stimulation of VSMC with H(2)O(2) resulted in increased expression of prepro-ET mRNA after 1 h with a maximum after 6 h (fourfold), similar to treatment with angiotensin II. ET-1 protein was significantly increased by H(2)O(2) treatment with a maximum after 8 h (P<.05). This effect was inhibited by the antioxidants resveratrol (100 microM) and quercetin (50 microM). In quiesced VSMC, incubation with H(2)O(2)-conditioned medium resulted in increased cPLA(2) activity compared to the controls (P<.05). This activity was partially inhibited by the ET(A)-receptor antagonist, PD 142893 (10 microM), indicating functional ET-1 in the conditioned medium. The presence of oxidative stress in H(2)O(2)-treated VSMC was associated by significantly increased formation of 8-isoprostane (P<.05). The data indicate for the first time that oxidative stress increases ET-1 generation and autocrine ET-1 activity in VSMC, a mechanism that might contribute to endothelial dysfunction in atherosclerosis.