High-energy phosphates in heart muscle deprived of oxygen are rapidly broken down to purine nucleosides and oxypurines. We studied the role of xanthine oxidase/dehydrogenase (EC 18.104.22.168/EC 22.214.171.124) in this process with novel high-pressure liquid chromatographic techniques. Under various conditions, including ischemia and anoxia, the isolated perfused rat heart released adenosine, inosine and hypoxanthine, and also substantial amounts of xanthine and urate. Allopurinol, an inhibitor of xanthine oxidase, greatly enhanced the release of hypoxanthine. From the purine release we calculated that the rat heart contained about 18 mU xanthine oxidase per g wet weight. Subsequently, we measured a xanthine oxidase activity of 9 mU/g wet wt. in rat-heart homogenate. When endogenous low molecular weight inhibitors were removed by gel-filtration, the activity increased to 31 mU/g wet wt. Rat myocardial xanthine oxidase seems to be present mainly in the dehydrogenase form, which upon storage at -20 degrees C is converted to the oxidase form.