We examined the hypothesis that impaired endothelium-dependent vasodilation in atherosclerosis is associated with decreased synthesis of nitrogen oxides by the vascular endothelium. The descending thoracic aortae of rabbits fed either normal diet, a high cholesterol diet for 2-5 wk (hypercholesterolemic, HC), or a high cholesterol diet for 6 mo (atherosclerotic, AS) were perfused in a bioassay organ chamber with physiologic buffer containing indomethacin. Despite a dramatic impairment in the vasodilator activity of endothelium-dependent relaxing factor (EDRF) released from both HC and AS aortae (assessed by bioassay), the release of nitrogen oxides (measured by chemiluminescence) from these vessels was not reduced, but markedly increased compared to NL. Thus, impaired endothelium-dependent relaxation in atherosclerosis is neither due to decreased activity of the enzyme responsible for the production of nitrogen oxides from arginine nor to arginine deficiency. Because the production of nitrogen oxides increased in response to acetylcholine in both hypercholesterolemic and atherosclerotic vessels, impairments in signal transduction are not responsible for abnormal endothelium-dependent relaxations. Impaired vasodilator activity of EDRF by cholesterol feeding may result from loss of incorporation of nitric oxide into a more potent parent compound, or accelerated degradation of EDRF.