To study the role of endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS) in cardiac function, we compared eNOS expression, contractility, and relaxation in the left ventricles of wild-type and eNOS-deficient mice. eNOS immunostaining is localized to the macro- and microvascular endothelium throughout the myocardium in wild-type mice and is absent in eNOS-/- mice. Whereas blood pressure is elevated in eNOS-/- mice, baseline cardiac contractility (dP/dt(max)) is similar in wild-type and eNOS-/- mice (9,673 +/- 2, 447 and 9,928 +/- 1,566 mmHg/s, respectively). The beta-adrenergic agonist isoproterenol (Iso) at doses of >/=1 ng causes enhanced increases in dP/dt(max) in eNOS-/- mice compared with wild-type controls in vivo (P < 0.01) as well as in Langendorff isolated heart preparations (P < 0.02). beta-Adrenergic receptor binding (B(max)) is not significantly different in the two groups of animals (B(max) = 41.4 +/- 9.4 and 36.1 +/- 5.1 fmol/mg for wild-type and eNOS-/-). Iso-stimulated ventricular relaxation is also enhanced in the eNOS-/- mice, as measured by dP/dt(min) in the isolated heart. However, baseline ventricular relaxation is normal in eNOS-/- mice (tau = 5.2 +/- 1.0 and 5.6 +/- 1.5 ms for wild-type and eNOS-/-, respectively), whereas it is impaired in wild-type mice after NOS inhibition (tau = 8.3 +/- 2.4 ms). cGMP levels in the left ventricle are unaffected by eNOS gene deletion (wild-type: 3.1 +/- 0.8 pmol/mg, eNOS-/-: 3.1 +/- 0.6 pmol/mg), leading us to examine the level of another physiological regulator of cGMP. Atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) expression is markedly upregulated in the eNOS-/- mice, and exogenous ANP restores ventricular relaxation in wild-type mice treated with NOS inhibitors. These results suggest that eNOS attenuates both inotropic and lusitropic responses to beta-adrenergic stimulation, and it also appears to regulate baseline ventricular relaxation in conjunction with ANP.