Endothelins (ETs) are very potent vasoconstrictive peptides and have diverse functions in both vascular and nonvascular tissues. This investigation concerns the tissue distribution and cellular localization of rat mRNAs encoding two different subtypes of ET receptors (ETA and ETB). We isolated 46 cDNA clones from a rat lung cDNA library by hybridization with the bovine ETA cDNA. The characterization of these cDNA clones indicated that they represent either the ETA or ETB cDNA. In situ and blot hybridization analyses revealed that the rat ETA mRNA is predominantly expressed in vascular smooth muscle cells of a variety of tissues, bronchial smooth muscle cells, myocardium, and the pituitary gland. There is no significant expression of ETB mRNA in vascular smooth muscle cells, and ETA, thus, plays a primary role in ET-induced vascular contraction. ETB mRNA is more widely distributed in various cell types of many tissues. Its prominent expression is seen in glial cells throughout the brain regions, epithelial cells of the choroid plexus, ependymal cells lining the ventricle, myocardium, endothelial cells of glomeruli, and epithelial cells of the thin segments of Henle's loops. Our investigation demonstrates that the mRNAs for the two subtypes of rat ET receptors show specialized expression patterns of cell types in both brain and peripheral tissues.