This study demonstrates the induction of endothelin (ET) mRNA expression and synthesis of functional ET peptide in cultured human vascular smooth muscle cells (hVSMC). Compounds eliciting such responses in hVSMC include the vasoconstrictor hormones angiotensin II and arginine-vasopressin and the growth factors transforming growth factor beta, platelet derived growth factor AA and epidermal growth factor. Induction of ET mRNA expression in hVSMC exhibited transient kinetics (peak at 3-5 hrs. and return to basal within 7 hrs.) which differed from the more sustained ET transcript induction observed for porcine endothelial cells. ET peptide (determined by both radioimmuno- and radioreceptor assays) produced by stimulated hVSMC attained levels (approximately 120-160 pg/10(6) cells/4 hrs.; concentration approximately 3 x 10(-11) M) within the biologically effective concentration range of ET. Stimulated secretion of ET from hVSMC was abolished in the presence of the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide. Sep-pak C18 extracts of medium from stimulated hVSMC elicited a concentration-dependent phosphoinositide catabolic response in myo-[2-3H]-inositol-prelabelled hVSMC. Our findings invoke a role for ET which extends beyond the paracrine regulation by peptide synthesized and secreted by endothelial cells. We propose that VSMC-synthesized ET may function in an autocrine manner to regulate both tone and structural modelling of vasculature.