The degree of myocardial oxygen delivery (Do2) that is necessary to reestablish functional contractile activity after short-term global ischemia in heart is not known. To determine the relationship between Do2 and recovery of contractile and metabolic functions, we used tissue NADH fluorometric changes to characterize adequacy of reperfusion flow. Isolated perfused rat hearts were subjected to global ischemia and were reperfused at variable flow rates that ranged from 1 to 100% of baseline flow. Myocardial function and tissue NADH changes were continuously measured. NADH fluorescence rapidly increased and plateaued during ischemia. A strong inverse logarithmic correlation between NADH fluorescence and reperfusion Do2 was demonstrated (r = -0.952). Left ventricular function (rate-pressure product) was inversely related to NADH fluorescence at reperfusion flows from 25 to 100% of baseline (r = -0.922) but not at lower reperfusion flow levels. An apparent reperfusion threshold of 25% of baseline Do2 was necessary to resume contractile function. At very low reperfusion flows (1% of baseline), another threshold flow was identified at which NADH levels increased beyond that observed during global ischemia (3.4 +/- 3.0%, means +/- SE, n = 9), which suggests further reduction of the cellular redox state. This NADH increase at 1% of baseline reperfusion flow was blocked by removing glucose from the perfusate. NADH fluorescence is a sensitive indicator of myocardial cellular oxygen utilization over a wide range of reperfusion Do2 values. Although oxygen is utilized at very low flow rates, as indicated by changes in NADH, a critical threshold of approximately 25% of baseline Do2 is necessary to restore contractile function after short-term global ischemia.