Endothelin-1 (ET-1), a potent vasoconstrictor peptide produced by endothelial cells and degraded predominantly in the pulmonary vasculature, has been implicated in the development of various organ dysfunctions. To determine the pathophysiologic role of ET-1 in adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and the impact of impaired lung function on transpulmonary peptide handling, we compared plasma levels and pulmonary ET-1 balance in 14 patients with ARDS and in seven healthy control subjects. To obtain comparable conditions in both groups, the ET-1 level was raised in the control group by exogenous infusion (0.4 pmol/kg/min) to 9.4 +/- 0.8 pmol/L. ARDS was accompanied by a hyperdynamic circulatory pattern with increased cardiac output and depressed total vascular resistance but, simultaneously, pulmonary hypertension. Venous ET-1 concentration was massively increased in ARDS (9.8 +/- 1.2 versus 2.1 +/- 0.2 pmol/L, p < 0.001). In control subjects, the lung cleared the major fraction of ET-1 (fractional extraction 43 +/- 8.8%, uptake 12.5 +/- 2.5 pmol/min). In contrast, in ARDS there was a pronounced pulmonary releases into the circulation (32.8 +/- 10.3 pmol/min). We conclude that ET-1 concentrations are elevated in ARDS as the result of both increased formation and decreased disposal. Lung failure affects not only gas exchange but also nonrespiratory, metabolic pulmonary functions.