Although studies have shown that endothelium-derived nitric oxide (NO) release is depressed during endotoxic shock or polymicrobial sepsis, it remains unknown whether the decreased release of endothelium-derived NO during the hyperdynamic stage of sepsis is due to downregulation of endothelial NO synthase. To study this, adult rats were subjected to sepsis by cecal ligation and puncture (CLP). At 10 h after CLP (i.e., hyperdynamic: sepsis) or sham operation, the aorta was removed and a monoclonal antibody against endothelial (constitutive) NO synthase (E-NOS) was used to determine the immunohistochemical presence and electron microscopic localization of E-NOS in rat aortic endothelial cells. Image analysis was used to quantify aortic E-NOS. In additional groups of animals, the aorta was isolated at 10 h after CLP and the vascular responses to an endothelium-dependent vasodilator, acetylcholine, and an endothelium-independent vasodilator, nitroglycerine, were determined. The results indicate that the number of E-NOS negative endothelial cells increased from 7% in shams to 22% in septic animals. E-NOS densely labeled endothelial cells were significantly reduced from 20% to 8% at 10 h after CLP. The E-NOS positive area in aortic endothelial cells was reduced from 26.1 ± 1.0 μm2/standard frame in sham to 22.3 ± 0.9 μm2/standard frame in septic animals. Moreover, acetylcholine-induced but not nitroglycerine-induced vascular relaxation was significantly depressed at 10 h after the onset of sepsis. These results, taken together; indicate that the decreased E-NOS in the vascular endothelial cell is at least in part responsible for endothelial cell dysfunction (i.e., the reduced endothelium-derived NO release) observed during the early, hyperdynamic stage of polymicrobial sepsis.