Constitutive nitric oxide synthase (cNOS) with insufficient cofactor (6R)-5,6,7,8-tetrahydrobiopterin (H4B) may generate damaging superoxide (O2-). This study was designed to determine whether cNOS-dependent generation of O2- occurs in spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR) before the onset of hypertension. Aortas from 4-wk-old SHR and Wistar-Kyoto rats were used. cNOS was stimulated by calcium ionophore A23187. In situ measurements of nitric oxide and hydrogen peroxide by electrochemical sensors and O2- production by chemiluminescence method were performed. Isometric tension was continuously recorded. H4B by high performance liquid chromatography and [3H]citrulline assay were determined in homogenized tissue. The A23187-stimulated production of O2- and its superoxide dismutase product hydrogen peroxide were significantly higher, whereas nitric oxide release was reduced in SHR aortas, with opposite results in the presence of exogenous H4B. Furthermore, NG-monomethyl-L-arginine inhibited the generation of cNOS-dependent O2- by approximately 70%. Natural H4B levels were similar in both strains; however, equivalent cNOS activity required additional H4B in SHR. The endothelium-dependent relaxations to A23187 were significantly inhibited by catalase, and enhanced by superoxide dismutase, only in SHR; however, these enzymes had no effect in the presence of H4B. Thus, dysfunctional cNOS may be a source of O2- in prehypertensive SHR and contribute to the development of hypertension and its vascular complications.