To study cellular mechanisms influencing vascular reactivity, vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMC) were obtained by enzymatic dissociation of the rat mesenteric artery, a highly reactive, resistance-type blood vessel, and established in primary culture. Cellular binding sites for the vasoconstrictor hormone angiotensin II (AII) were identified and characterized using the radioligand 125I-angiotensin II. Freshly isolated VSMC, and VSMC maintained in primary culture for up to 3 wk, exhibited rapid, saturable, and specific 125I-AII binding similar to that seen with homogenates of the intact rat mesenteric artery. In 7-d primary cultures, Scatchard analysis indicated a single class of high-affinity binding sites with an equilibrium dissociation constant (Kd) of 2.8 +/- 0.2 nM and a total binding capacity of 81.5 +/- 5.0 fmol/mg protein (equivalent to 4.5 x 10(4) sites per cell). Angiotensin analogues and antagonists inhibited 125I-AII binding to cultured VSMC in a potency series similar to that observed for the vascular AII receptor in vivo. Nanomolar concentrations of native AII elicited a rapid, reversible, contractile response, in a variable proportion of cells, that was inhibited by pretreatment with the competitive antagonist Sar1,Ile8-AII. Transmission electron microscopy showed an apparent loss of thick (12-18 nm Diam) myofilaments and increased synthetic activity, but these manifestations of phenotypic modulation were not correlated with loss of 125I-AII binding sites or hormonal responsiveness. Primary cultures of enzymatically dissociated rat mesenteric artery VSMC thus may provide a useful in vitro system to study cellular mechanisms involved in receptor activation-response coupling, receptor regulation, and the maintenance of differentiation in vascular smooth muscle.

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