Phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE5) inhibitors act by competing with the substrate, cGMP, for the catalytic site of the enzyme. Two commercialized PDE5 inhibitors, sildenafil and vardenafil, are being used to treat erectile dysfunction. These two compounds differ in the heterocyclic ring system used to mimic the purine ring of cGMP. They also differ in the substituent (ethyl/methyl) of a piperazine side chain. Although these are the only two structural differences, vardenafil has more than 20-fold greater potency than sildenafil for inhibiting purified PDE5. The molecular structural basis for the difference in potency of the two compounds was investigated by synthesizing an analog of sildenafil ("methyl-sildenafil") that contained the sildenafil ring system but with the appended ethyl group found in vardenafil, and an analog of vardenafil ("demethyl-vardenafil") that contained the vardenafil ring system but with the appended methyl group found in sildenafil. The IC50 of methyl-sildenafil for inhibiting PDE5 indicated that it was 64 times less potent than demethyl-vardenafil, which was similar to the finding that, based on IC50, sildenafil was 40 times less potent than vardenafil. Similarly, the EC50 of methyl-sildenafil for inhibiting [3H]vardenafil binding to PDE5 indicated that it was 84 times less potent than demethyl-vardenafil, while the EC50 for sildenafil indicated that it was 31 times less potent than vardenafil. It is concluded that the methyl/ethyl appended group on the piperazine moiety plays very little role in the difference in potency between sildenafil and vardenafil for inhibiting PDE5, whereas the differences in the ring systems play a critical role in higher potency of vardenafil over sildenafil.