Recently, it was demonstrated that superoxide oxidizes dihydroethidium to a specific fluorescent product (oxyethidium) that differs from ethidium by the presence of an additional oxygen atom in its molecular structure. We have adapted this new HPLC-based assay to quantify this product as a tool to estimate intracellular superoxide in intact tissues. Ethidium and oxyethidium were separated using a C-18 column and quantified using fluorescence detection. Initial cell-free experiments with potassium superoxide and xanthine oxidase confirmed the formation of oxyethidium from dihydroethidium. The formation of oxyethidium was inhibited by superoxide dismutase but not catalase and did not occur upon the addition of H(2)O(2), peroxynitrite, or hypochlorous acid. In bovine aortic endothelial cells (BAEC) and murine aortas, the redox cycling drug menadione increased the formation of oxyethidium from dihydroethidium ninefold (0.4 nmol/mg in control vs. 3.6 nmol/mg with 20 microM menadione), and polyethylene glycol-conjugated superoxide dismutase (PEG-SOD) significantly inhibited this effect. Treatment of BAEC with angiotensin II caused a twofold increase in oxyethidium formation, and this effect also was reduced by PEG-SOD (0.5 nmol/mg). In addition, in the aortas of mice with angiotensin II-induced hypertension and DOCA-salt hypertension, the formation of oxyethidium was increased in a manner corresponding to superoxide production estimated on the basis of cytochrome c reduction. Detection of oxyethidium using HPLC represents a new, convenient, quantitative method for the detection of superoxide in intact cells and tissues.