Myocardial and endothelial damage is still a widely debated problem during the ischemia-reperfusion sequence in heart surgery. We evaluated myocardial purine metabolites, antioxidant defense mechanisms, oxidative status and endothelial dysfunction markers in 14 patients undergoing coronary artery by-pass graft (CABG). Heart biopsies were taken before aortic cross-clamping (t1), before clamp removal (t2) and 30 min after reperfusion (t3); perchloric extracts of the tissue were analyzed for glutathione, NAD, nucleotide nucleoside and base content by capillary electrophoresis (CE). In plasma samples from the coronary sinus we evaluated: nitrate and nitrite concentrations by CE, plasma glutathione peroxidase (plGPx) by ELISA, endothelin-1 (ET-1) by RIA and reactive oxygen metabolites (ROM) by colorimetric assay. During the ischemic period (t2) we observed a reduction in cellular NAD and GSH levels, as well as nitrate, nitrite and plGPx. ATP and GTP levels decreased and their catabolic products AMP, GMP, IMP, adenosine, inosine and hypoxanthine accumulated. The energy charge, ATP/ADP ratio, and nucleotide/(nucleoside + base) ratios decreased. At t3, levels of plasma ET-1 increased and monophosphate nucleotides tended to return to basal values. The energy charge did not increase but the nucleotide/(nucleoside + nucleobase) ratio recovered to some extent. Levels of nitrates plus nitrites continued to decrease. No significant variation in ROM levels was observed. Our data indicate that oxidative stress and endothelial damage are major events during CABG, overwhelming the scavenging capacity of the myocyte and preventing restoration of the normal energy balance for 30 min after reperfusion. The AMP deaminase pathway leading to IMP production is active during ischemia and adenosine is not the main compound derived from ATP break-down in the human heart. The possible role of extracorporeal circulation is also discussed.