Endothelin (ET) peptides have been implicated in the pathogenesis of several biological processes within the liver. ET levels are elevated in the circulation of patients with cirrhosis, and recent data suggest that ET may be overproduced in the liver itself in this condition. The aims of the current study were to elucidate the cellular source and expression of endothelin-1 (ET-1) in normal and injured liver, and to investigate its biological effects on stellate cells, the primary target of ETs in the liver. In normal hepatic cells, preproET-1 messenger RNA (mRNA) was detected in only nonparenchymal cells, predominantly in sinusoidal endothelial cells. After biliary fibrosis and early cirrhosis induced by bile duct ligation, preproET-1 mRNA and immunoreactive ET levels increased with progressive injury in whole liver extracts, as well as in isolated stellate and endothelial cell fractions. Eight days after bile duct ligation, the relative increase in preproET-1 mRNA was 1.6- and 7.6-fold above normal in sinusoidal endothelial and stellate cells, respectively. Additionally, immunoreactive ET peptide levels increased by 60% +/- 27% over basal values in sinusoidal endothelial cells and 98% +/- 40% in stellate cells. Cultured stellate cells responded dramatically to exogenous ET-1 by the spreading and up-regulation of smooth muscle alpha actin expression. Furthermore, in early culture before cellular activation, ET-1 (10 nmol/L) caused over a twofold increase in [3H]thymidine incorporation, while activated cells (i.e., those cultured for >1 week) exposed to ET-1 exhibited up to a fivefold decrease in [3H]thymidine incorporation. The data indicate that not only is ET-1 overproduced by both sinusoidal endothelial and stellate cells during liver injury, but that it also has potent effects on features of stellate cell activation. We conclude that autocrine and paracrine production of ET-1 is prominent and is likely to be important in the pathogenesis of hepatic diseases.