Endothelins are recently characterized vasoconstrictor peptides. As chronic heart failure (CHF) is characterized by peripheral arteriolar and renal vasoconstriction, we have measured venous plasma endothelin-like immunoreactivity ("endothelin") in patients with this syndrome. Compared with age- and sex-matched healthy volunteers (mean +/- SEM plasma endothelin concentration 6.4 +/- 0.3 pmol/l, n = 16), patients with severe CHF had elevated peripheral venous endothelin concentrations (12.4 +/- 0.6 pmol/l, n = 47, p less than 0.01). Plasma endothelin did not increase with exercise in normal subjects or in patients. Plasma endothelin concentration (mean, 13.4 +/- 0.9 pmol/l) did not correlate with plasma atrial natriuretic factor concentration (mean, 88.9 +/- 11.9 pg/ml) in patients with CHF (n = 21). There was also no correlation between plasma endothelin and serum urea or between endothelin and serum creatinine in patients with CHF (n = 34). There was, however, significant renal extraction of endothelin (aorta, 11.1 +/- 0.8 pmol/l; renal vein, 8.8 +/- 0.6 pmol/ml; p = 0.02) in patients with CHF (n = 13). Evidence suggests that circulatory endothelin concentrations in the range 5-40 pmol/l are vasoactive. Consequently, the endothelin concentrations found in patients with CHF may be of pathophysiological significance.