The effects of endothelin-1 (ET-1), a nonselective ETA and ETB receptor agonist, and sarafotoxin S6c, a selective ETB agonist, were investigated in the presence and absence of BQ123 and BQ788, ETA- and ETB-selective antagonists, respectively, in rat mesenteric small arteries, using a perfusion pressurized arteriograph in which segments of vessels were cannulated and exposed to constant pressure and flow. ET-1 (10(-13)-10(-7) M) induced vasoconstriction in both intact and endothelium-denuded arteries in a concentration-dependent manner. BQ123 (10(-7) and 10(-6) M) inhibited the effect of ET-1, displacing the concentration-response curve to the right in a concentration-dependent manner. The effect of ET-1 was not significantly affected by BQ788 (10(-7) and 10(-6) M), a selective antagonist of ETB receptors. Sarafotoxin S6c (10(-11)-10(-7) M) also induced a slight concentration-dependent vasoconstriction. The effect of sarafotoxin S6c (10(-8) M) was inhibited by the ETB-selective antagonist BQ788 (10(-7) M), but was not significantly changed by BQ123 (10(-7) M). Vasoconstriction induced by sarafotoxin S6c (10(-8) M) in a single bolus concentration was significantly greater than the contraction induced by the same concentration as part of a cumulative concentration-response curve, indicating desensitization or downregulation of ETB receptors during the latter. Repeated application of single concentrations of sarafotoxin S6c (10(-8) M) caused progressively smaller contraction of arteries. These results show the existence of both ETA and ETB vasoconstrictor receptors located on smooth muscle of small arteries. They also show that ETB receptors induce a smaller constrictor effect, and rapidly undergo desensitization after sustained or repeated activation.