Both the internal mammary artery and the saphenous vein are used to construct coronary-artery bypass grafts. We hypothesized that the release or production of endothelium-derived relaxing factor, which regulates blood flow and inhibits platelet function, may differ in venous and arterial grafts. We therefore studied endothelium-dependent relaxation in internal mammary arteries, internal mammary veins, and saphenous veins obtained from 58 patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery. Vascular rings with and without endothelium were suspended in organ chambers, and isometric tension was recorded. Acetylcholine (10(-8) to 10(-4) M), thrombin (1 U per milliliter), and adenosine diphosphate (10(-7) to 10(-4) M) evoked potent endothelium-dependent relaxation in the mammary artery but weak response in the saphenous vein (P less than 0.005; n = 6 to 27). In the mammary artery, relaxation was greatest in response to acetylcholine (86 +/- 4 percent reduction in norepinephrine-induced tension), followed by thrombin (44 +/- 7 percent) and adenosine diphosphate (39 +/- 8 percent). In the saphenous and mammary veins, relaxation was less than 25 percent. Relaxation was unaffected by indomethacin but was inhibited by methylene blue and hemoglobin (P less than 0.005 and 0.01, respectively), which suggests that endothelium-derived relaxing factor was the mediator. Endothelium-independent relaxation in response to sodium nitroprusside was similar in arteries and veins. We conclude that endothelium-dependent relaxation is greater in the mammary artery than in the saphenous vein. The possibility that this contributes to the higher patency rate among arterial grafts than among venous grafts will require further study.