We examined the effects of endotoxin on nitric oxide formation in isolated rat hepatocytes in primary culture. Endotoxin was administered either in vivo, by continuous infusion for 30 or 3 h, or in vitro, on cultured cells. The spontaneous production of nitrites in hepatocytes from in vivo ET-infused rats was lower than equivalent saline controls in the absence of added stimuli. However in vitro addition of endotoxin in culture to hepatocytes from 30 h ET-infused rats greatly enhanced production relative to saline controls. This effect was mimicked by TNF alpha, and activators of protein kinase C (PMA and Ca2+ ionophore A23187). The effects of ET were blocked by NMMA, dexamethasone and protein synthesis inhibitors Actinomycin D and cycloheximide. No in vitro effect of ET was observed in the 3 h infusion model. The results show that chronic exposure to sub-lethal levels of ET primes liver parenchymal cells for the production of nitric oxide, when exposed in vitro to ET or TNF alpha.