The effect of the highly vasoactive peptide endothelin 1 (ET1) was tested on bovine retinal microvascular pericytes propagated in vitro. Specific binding of 125I-ET1 to retinal pericytes was documented by autoradiography. ET1 caused contraction of pericytes at a concentration of 0.1 nM which was accompanied by increases in inositol phosphates. Exposure of pericytes to 10 nM ET1 resulted in the aggregation and realignment of muscle-specific actins into bundles which were oriented parallel to the long axis of the cell, and ET1 was also mitogenic to pericytes in the presence of low levels of fetal calf serum. These observations suggest that ET1 may play an important role in endothelial cell-pericyte interactions within the microvasculature of the retina and that it may be involved in the autoregulation of retinal blood flow.