The metabolic syndrome, Type II (non-insulin-dependent) diabetes and obesity are associated with endothelial dysfunction and increased plasma concentrations of NEFAs (non-esterified fatty acids; free fatty acids). The present study was undertaken to define the inhibitory effects of saturated NEFAs on EDR (endothelium-dependent relaxation). Experiments were performed in rings of rabbit aorta to establish (i) dose-response relationships, (ii) the effect of chain length, (iii) the effect of the presence of double bonds, (iv) reversibility and time course of inhibition, and (v) the effect on nitric oxide production. Aortic rings were incubated (1 h) with NEFA-albumin complexes derived from lauric (C(12:0)), myristic (C(14:0)), palmitic (C(16:0)), stearic (C(18:0)) and linolenic (C(18:3)) acids. EDR induced by acetylcholine (0.1-10 mumol/l) was measured after pre-contraction with noradrenaline. Inhibition of EDR was dose-dependent (0.5-2 mmol/l NEFA), and the greatest inhibition (51%) was observed with stearic acid (2 mmol/l). Lauric acid had the smallest inhibitory effect. The inhibitory effects were always reversible and were evident after 15 min of incubation. Linolenic acid caused a significantly lower inhibition of EDR than stearic acid. SOD (superoxide dismutase) restored the inhibitory effect caused by NEFAs, suggesting the involvement of ROS (reactive oxygen species) in removing nitric oxide. The nitric oxide concentration measured after exposure of the rings to acetylcholine was lower after incubation with NEFAs than with Krebs buffer alone. This finding is consistent with removal of nitric oxide by ROS. This claim was supported by the demonstration of increased concentrations of nitrated tyrosine in the rings incubated with NEFAs.