Liver endothelial cells possess fenestrae, which are pores supported by a cytoskeleton ring composed of actin and myosin. Fenestrae are dynamic structures that can contract or dilate, although the mechanism for this phenomenon remains to be elucidated. Staining of actin and/or of myosin permitted measurement of fenestral diameter and area in cultured rat liver endothelial cells using digitized video-intensified fluorescence microscopy with image analysis. Within 1 minute of incubation with 0.1 micromol/L serotonin, fenestral diameter and area decreased by 24 +/- 5% and 56 +/- 7%, respectively. Contraction of fenestrae by serotonin was inhibited by chelation of extracellular Ca2+ with EGTA and by addition of Ca2+ channel blockers, such as dilthiazem and verapamil. The response of fenestrae to serotonin was mimicked by addition of a Ca2+ ionophore, A23187. Serotonin inhibited cAMP production, had no effect on inositol phosphate production, and activated phospholipase A2, causing release of arachidonic acid. These results suggest that contraction of fenestrae is associated with Ca2+ influx. In response to 0.1 micromol/serotonin, intracellular Ca2+ levels increased within 3 to 5 seconds from 150 nmol/L to >400 nmol/l followed by rapid phosphorylation of the 20-kd subunit of myosin light chain; both events dependent on extracellular Ca2+.