The effects of endothelins (endothelin-1 and endothelin-3) on penile erection were studied in vivo in the pithed rat. Penile erectile responses were evaluated by measurements of intracorporal pressure via a needle inserted into one corpus cavernosum. Injection of endothelins (0.1-10 micrograms/kg i.v.) was followed by a rapid rise in corporal pressure. The responses to endothelin-1 and endothelin-3 were equivalent at the lower doses, but at 10 micrograms/kg the response to endothelin-3 was greater than that to endothelin-1. NG-Nitro-L-arginine-methyl ester (20 mg/kg) but not indomethacin (10 mg/kg) antagonized the rise in corporal pressure caused by submaximal doses of endothelins. Electrical nerve stimulation-induced increase in corporal pressure was reduced after 5 micrograms/kg endothelin-1 but not after the same dose of endothelin-3. The results indicate that in corporal vasculature endothelin-3 has a predominantly vasodilator effect, while endothelin-1 has a vasodilator effect at lower doses and a vasoconstrictor effect at higher doses. The vasodilator action of endothelins is probably mediated by activation of endothelin ETB receptors and local release of nitric oxide. Thus, endothelins may participate in initiation and/or maintenance of penile erection.