Vascular smooth muscle tone is dependent on oxidative metabolism, a phenomenon of potential importance for the metabolic regulation of blood flow to tissues. The response of the rat portal vein to inhibition of cell respiration by cyanide (0.1-1 mM) is a reduction of its spontaneous myogenic activity. The trains of action potentials triggering phasic contractions are reduced in duration, while the frequency of trains is often somewhat increased as the resting membrane potential in the intervals between spike trains is less negative by 6.5 mV. Glibenclamide (10(-7) M) did not affect the resting membrane potential or spontaneous mechanical activity of oxygenated portal veins, but partly restored the depressed myogenic activity in the presence of cyanide (0.5 mM). The spike trains were longer, while the membrane was depolarized by 3 mV compared with the effects of cyanide alone. Inhibition of both oxidative and glycolytic metabolism by 2 mM NaCN in a medium where glucose was replaced by beta-hydroxybutyrate caused a hyperpolarization which was abolished by 10(-7) M glibenclamide. The relaxing effect of the K+ channel opener cromakalim (5 x 10(-9) to 6.25 x 10(-7) M) was partly antagonized by glibenclamide. Basal cytosolic [Ca2+] was increased by cyanide, while the Ca2+ transients associated with phasic contractions were reduced in duration. This latter effect was partially reversed by glibenclamide. The effect of cyanide on high-K+ contractures, which are associated with sustained membrane depolarization and not dependent on repetitive spike activity, was not influenced by 10(-7) M glibenclamide. The effects of inhibited cell respiration on spontaneous electrical activity seem to reflect a depolarizing drive caused by inhibited active ion exchange mechanisms, modified by a repolarizing drive, possibly from ATP-regulated K+ channels, causing reduced duration of the spike trains. While glibenclamide affects spontaneous activity at all levels of oxidative blockade, glibenclamide-sensitive hyperpolarization is seen only when both oxidative and glycolytic metabolism is inhibited.