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We investigated the actions of endothelin in anesthetized rats and cultured mesangial cells. Intravenous infusion of endothelin (10 pmol/min) decreased renal blood flow by 44% at 20 min without changing arterial pressure, which subsequently rose significantly from 124 +/- 3 to 133 +/- 4 mmHg over 60 min. Micropuncture during the nonhypertensive period revealed increases in afferent (65%) and efferent (82%) arteriolar resistances, thereby reducing nephron plasma flow rate. The glomerular ultrafiltration coefficient (Kf) fell from 0.097 +/- 0.035 to 0.031 +/- 0.011 nl/(s.mmHg) as did single nephron filtration rate (41 +/- 3 to 19 +/- 3 nl/min). Addition of 5 nM endothelin to mesangial cells plated on a silicone rubber substrate increased the intensity and number of tension-generated wrinkles, and caused their reappearance in forskolin prerelaxed cells. 20-30 s following exposure of fura-2 loaded mesangial cells to 10 nM endothelin, single cell intracellular calcium concentration ([Ca]i) increased from a mean baseline value of 66 +/- 11 (SE) to a peak of 684 +/- 250 nM (P less than 0.05) followed by a sustained elevation at 145 +/- 42 nM. Anion exchange HPLC revealed rapid (15 s) and dose-dependent stimulation of inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphate (IP3) generation following exposure of [3H]myoinositol preloaded mesangial cells to 10-100 nM endothelin. Endothelin also led to intracellular alkalinization of 2'7'-bis(2-carboxy-ethyl)-5(and-6)carboxyfluorescein (BCECF)-loaded mesangial cells and its addition was associated with dramatic augmentation of mitogenic activity. Thus, endothelin exerts potent constrictor effects on renal arterioles which precede its systemic hypertensive action. It lowers Kf and contracts mesangial cells, likely through stimulation of IP3 generation and elevation of [Ca]i. It is a potent mesangial cell mitogen. These studies define functional responses and signal transduction pathways for endothelin in the rat kidney and propose a potential role for this peptide in the control of mesangial cell function, glomerular filtration rate, and renal vascular tone.