The purpose of this study was to determine the radical species which mediates the toxic effects of exogenous oxygen-derived free radicals on endothelial function of chronic diabetic rat aorta. Endothelium-dependent relaxation to acetylcholine was impaired in diabetic vessels. Exposure to the exogenous free radical generating system of xanthine plus xanthine oxidase selectively impaired endothelium-dependent relaxation to acetylcholine in control and diabetic aorta with relaxations essentially abolished in diabetic aorta. The loss of relaxation to acetylcholine in diabetic aorta was prevented or attenuated by pretreatment with catalase, dimethylthiourea or desferrioxamine, but not by mannitol or superoxide dismutase. These results suggest that hydroxyl radicals play an important role in the endothelial injury produced by oxygen-derived free radicals in chronic diabetic rat aorta. Furthermore, the site of the injury is likely due to intracellular generation of hydroxyl radicals.