Endothelial cell-generated nitric oxide (NO) accounts in large part for the labile vasodilator termed endothelium-derived relaxing factor. Two distinct types of NO synthase exist: a "constitutive' type (cNOS), found in endothelial cells, and an "inducible' enzyme. Endothelial cells sense pO2 levels in the range of 70-20 torr and respond to this hypoxia by inducing transcription of genes which encode the vasoactive proteins PDGF-B and endothelin-1. Exposure of human or bovine endothelial cells to low oxygen tensions results in a profound decrease in the transcript for cNOS and a corresponding fall in cNOS protein levels. The ability of endothelial cells exposed to hypoxia to produce NO in response to bradykinin, a stimulator of cNOS activity, was coordinately impaired. Cobalt inhibited the expression of cNOS transcripts, suggesting a mechanism comparable to that by which oxygen tension regulates expression of other vasoregulatory genes. In the presence of actinomycin-D, hypoxia had no effect on cNOS transcripts, suggesting that new gene transcription is required for cNOS suppression. The reducing agents PDTC and N-Ac did not mimic cNOS gene suppression by hypoxia, suggesting that this suppression is not related to the redox state of the intracellular environment. Thus, regulation of cNOS function in response to environmental factors can occur at the level of gene expression as well as at the level of enzyme activation.