Endothelin-1 (ET-1) is both a potent vasoconstrictor and mitogenic factor that has been implicated as a cause of the micro- and macrovascular complications of diabetes mellitus. The pathway by which the high-glucose environment of diabetes mediates increased levels of endothelins has not been completely elucidated but appears to involve endothelin-converting enzyme (ECE-1), which converts inactive big ET-1 to active ET-1 peptide. To determine the effect of high glucose concentrations on the expression of ECE-1, hybrid endothelial cells (EA.hy926) and human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) were both grown in various glucose concentrations. There was a 2-fold increase in ECE-1 immunoreactivity in the EA.hy926 cell line growing in medium containing 22.2 versus 5.5 mmol/l glucose after 24 h, which rose to greater than 20-fold after 5 days. Similar results were seen with HUVEC. Bradykinin or NG-nitro- L-arginine methyl ester did not change the effect of high glucose on ECE-1 protein expression. High glucose induced a 72 and 41% increase in total protein kinase C (PKC) activity in both EA.hy926 cells and HUVEC, respectively, and a 39, 49 and 109% elevation in PKC β1, β2 and δ expression, respectively, in EA.hy926 cells. The increase in ECE-1 expression was inhibited in both cell cultures by GF109203X (5 µmol/l), a general PKC inhibitor, while addition of 10 nmol/l phorbol myristic acid to EA.hy926 cells or HUVEC growing on medium containing 5.5 mmol/l glucose increased ECE-1 expression to a level similar to that of cells conditioned in high glucose. Human ECE-1 protein exists in four different isoforms, termed 1a, 1b, 1c and 1d. Northern blot analysis revealed that only ECE-1c isoform mRNA levels increased. Immunohistochemical staining of EA.hy926 cells grown in high glucose concentrations demonstrated an increase in the ECE-1c isoform, which occurred mainly in the plasma membrane. These results showed that the PKC pathway may play an important role in the glucose-mediated induction of ECE-1 expression. The main isoform to increase in response to high glucose was ECE-1c. This enzyme may be one of the factors contributing to the elevated ET-1 peptide levels observed in diabetes.