The function of myoglobin at the cellular level was investigated by comparing O2 consumption in isolated myoglobin-rich cardiac myocytes from the sea raven (Hemitripterus americanus) and myoglobin-poor myocytes from the ocean pout (Macrozoarces americanus). O2 consumption by sea raven myocytes, 0.21 +/- 0.04 microM O2/10(6) cells.min-1, was significantly higher than O2 consumption by ocean pout myocytes, 0.10 +/- 0.07 microM O2/10(6) cells.min-1 at high PO2. O2 consumption in sea raven myocytes treated with sodium nitrite was not significantly different than that in untreated myocytes at high PO2, but it was significantly lower than controls at low PO2. O2 consumption of sea raven myocytes treated with the mitochondrial uncoupler CCCP was not significantly different from that of control myocytes at high PO2, but it was significantly greater than untreated controls at low PO2. In ocean pout preparations, O2 consumption by nitrite-treated myocytes was significantly higher than that of untreated myocytes at high PO2, but it was not different from that of controls at low PO2. CCCP-treated ocean pout myocytes had a significantly higher oxygen consumption than that of untreated myocytes at high PO2, but oxygen consumption was not different from that of controls at low PO2. The CCCP-activated O2 consumption at low PO2 was myoglobin-dependent in that CCCP alone resulted in a threefold increase in sea raven cells over controls but had no impact on sea raven cells in the presence of nitrite or ocean pout cells treated with CCCP alone. This study further supports the contention that myoglobin only plays an important role in oxygen metabolism at low extracellular PO2's.