1. Using isolated pulmonary resistance vessels from mature fetal lamb and chronically instrumented lambs (8-17 days old), we have examined whether hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction is sustained by activation of a constrictor mechanism or suppression of a dilator mechanism. 2. Hypoxia contracted both arteries and veins in vitro, and the contraction was greater with the former. After removing the endothelium, arteries responded faster to hypoxia, but the magnitude of the response remained unchanged. 3. Hypoxic arteries, unlike normally oxygenated arteries, did not contract with either indomethacin (2.8 microM) or N omega-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester (L-NAME, 100 microM). The same vessels relaxed with sodium nitroprusside (SNP, 0.001-10 microM) but not with bradykinin (0.1-100 nM). 4. Endothelin-1 (ET-1, 0.01-10 nM) contracted isolated arteries and veins under normoxic and hypoxic conditions. In both vessels, the contraction was fast in onset and subsidence, and was inhibited by the ETA receptor antagonist BQ123 (1 microM). The ET-1 precursor, big ET-1 (100 nM), also contracted arteries and veins, but compared with ET-1 its action was slower in development. Big ET-1 contraction, unlike ET-1 contraction, was curtailed by the inhibitor of the ET-1-converting enzyme, phosphoramidon (50 microM). 5. ET-1 (0.1-10 nM) had no effect on isolated arteries precontracted with a thromboxane A2 (TXA2) analogue (ONO-11113) and treated with BQ123 (10 microM). Under the same conditions, ET-1 relaxed the veins. Accordingly, in the absence of BQ123 treatment, the selective ETB receptor agonist IRL-1620 (0.1-100 nM) relaxed the contracted veins but not the arteries. 6. BQ123 (10 microM) inhibited the constriction of isolated arteries and veins to hypoxia. Likewise, in the conscious lamb a bolus of BQ123 (0.4 mg kg-1, injected into the pulmonary artery) curtailed the rise in pulmonary vascular resistance (Rpa) brought about by alveolar hypoxia without changing significantly systemic vascular resistance (Rao). Under normoxia, Rpa was insignificantly affected by BQ123. 7. The results indicate that pulmonary resistance arteries are more susceptible to hypoxia than the veins, and that hypoxic vasoconstriction does not require an intact endothelium to occur. Hypoxic tone is ascribed primarily to intramural generation of ET-1, while removal of the tonic action of a relaxant may only have an accessory role in the response.