The binding affinities for endothelin-1 and endothelin-3 to membrane preparations of various tissues of spontaneously hypertensive rats and normotensive Wistar-Kyoto rats were compared by competition binding of the peptides with [(125)I]endothelin-1. Endothelin-1 binding data obtained using membrane preparations from brain, heart, kidney, liver, lung and spleen of both strains were better fit with a one-site model. The brain tissue demonstrated the highest affinity for endothelin-1 in both strains with the same IC(50) of 0.11 nM, while the kidney and lung tissues showed the lowest affinities in both strains with IC(50) values ranged between 1.4 and 4.1 nM. Only the kidney tissues of these two strains showed a statistically significant difference in binding affinities for endothelin-1; the IC(50) values were 1.4 +/- 0.1 nM (mean +/- SE, n = 3) and 3.2 +/- 0.4 nM (n = 4) for the spontaneously hypertensive and normotensive rats, respectively. Endothelin-3 binding data obtained using membrane preparations from brain, kidney and lung of both strains were also better fit with a one-site model. In contrast, a two-site model was more suitable for analyzing endothelin-3 binding results obtained using membrane preparations from heart, liver and spleen of both strains. Again, only the kidney tissues of the two strains showed a statistically significant difference in binding affinities for endothelin-3. The ratio of IC(50) value of the major endothelin-3 binding site to that of endothelin-1 in each tissue varied from approx. 1.5 in brain, kidney and liver to greater than 500 in heart and spleen of both strains. Scatchard analysis of saturation binding data showed that [(125)I]endothelin-1 bound to a single class of binding sites in brain, heart, liver and spleen of both rat strains and in kidney of the spontaneously hypertensive rats. Specific binding to the kidney membrane preparation of the normotensive rats was not saturable at radioligand concentrations up to about 2 nM. These results suggest that the tissues of both strains investigated have different affinities as well as different selectivities for endothelin-1 and endothelin-3. Furthermore, kidney is the only tissue examined which showed higher binding affinity in the spontaneously hypertensive rats than that of the normotensive ones.