A major determinant of survival in patients with advanced viral or bacterial infection, or following severe trauma or burns complicated by multiple organ failure, is the combination of clinical signs termed the systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS). SIRS is characterized by hypotension, tachypnea, hypo- or hyperthermia and leukocytosis as well as other clinical signs and symptoms, including a depression in myocardial contractile function. Heart failure complicating systemic sepsis or other causes of SIRS is usually not accompanied by coronary artery ischemia due to hypotension, myocardial necrosis, or marked cardiac interstitial inflammatory infiltrates, and thus the cause of cardiac contractile dysfunction in this syndrome has remained unclear. However, recent evidence has implicated an endogenous nitric oxide (NO) signalling pathway within cardiac myocytes and other cellular constituents of cardiac muscle, including the microvascular endothelium, as a possible contributor to the pathogenesis of heart failure in this syndrome. Cardiac myocytes are now known to express both constitutive NO synthase (cNOS) and inducible NO synthase (iNOS) activities. Activation of cNOS appears to modulate cardiac myocyte responsiveness to muscarinic cholinergic and beta-adrenergic receptor stimulation. Induction of iNOS by soluble inflammatory mediators, including cytokines, causes a marked depression in myocyte contractile responsiveness to beta-adrenergic agonists. Thus, inappropriate activation of cNOS or excessive or prolonged induction of iNOS in the myocardium may contribute to cardiac dysfunction complicating SIRS.