Systemic endotoxemia has been observed in patients with acute and chronic liver failure, and bacterial endotoxin is known to increase vascular permeability. We investigated in the normal rat the effects of intraportal endotoxin administration and the possible mediation of these effects by platelet-activating factor. Injection of endotoxin lipopolysaccharide (10 and 25 mg per kg) in the rat resulted in rapid ascites formation, as well as systemic hypotension, hemoconcentration and acute erosions of the gastrointestinal mucosa. These effects were significantly attenuated by pretreatment with L652,731 and CF-3988, specific platelet-activating factor antagonists. Administration of 25 mg per kg endotoxin also resulted in significant elevations of platelet-activating factor biosynthesis in vitro by samples of duodenum, liver and lung. The effects of endotoxin were mimicked by intraportal infusion of platelet-activating factor (50 ng per kg per min), which induced ascites and gastrointestinal lesions. Platelet-activating factor reduced circulating plasma volume and increased peritoneal permeability to albumin as assessed by the ascites to plasma ratio of labeled albumin. These results, therefore, support a role for platelet-activating factor in mediating endotoxin-induced ascites and gastrointestinal erosions.