Acute hypoxia causes pulmonary vasoconstriction and coronary vasodilation. The divergent effects of hypoxia on pulmonary and coronary vascular smooth muscle cells suggest that the mechanisms involved in oxygen sensing and downstream effectors are different in these two types of cells. Since production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) is regulated by oxygen tension, ROS have been hypothesized to be a signaling mechanism in hypoxia-induced pulmonary vasoconstriction and vascular remodeling. Furthermore, an increased ROS production is also implicated in arteriosclerosis. In this study, we determined and compared the effects of hypoxia on ROS levels in human pulmonary arterial smooth muscle cells (PASMC) and coronary arterial smooth muscle cells (CASMC). Our results indicated that acute exposure to hypoxia (Po(2) = 25-30 mmHg for 5-10 min) significantly and rapidly decreased ROS levels in both PASMC and CASMC. However, chronic exposure to hypoxia (Po(2) = 30 mmHg for 48 h) markedly increased ROS levels in PASMC, but decreased ROS production in CASMC. Furthermore, chronic treatment with endothelin-1, a potent vasoconstrictor and mitogen, caused a significant increase in ROS production in both PASMC and CASMC. The inhibitory effect of acute hypoxia on ROS production in PASMC was also accelerated in cells chronically treated with endothelin-1. While the decreased ROS in PASMC and CASMC after acute exposure to hypoxia may reflect the lower level of oxygen substrate available for ROS production, the increased ROS production in PASMC during chronic hypoxia may reflect a pathophysiological response unique to the pulmonary vasculature that contributes to the development of pulmonary vascular remodeling in patients with hypoxia-associated pulmonary hypertension.