Spatially localized nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy was used to investigate with transmural differentiation the response of myocardial high energy phosphate compounds and inorganic orthophosphate (P(i)) to graded reductions in coronary blood flow caused by sustained coronary stenosis. In an open-chest model, localized 31P nuclear magnetic resonance spectra from five layers across the left ventricular wall were obtained simultaneously with transmural blood flow measurements during control conditions and during sustained graded reductions in intracoronary pressure. Both the blood flow, and high energy phosphate and P(i) contents displayed transmural heterogeneity in response to decreases in intracoronary pressure. The subendocardial creatine phosphate (CP) level remained unchanged as blood flow was reduced to approximately 0.7 ml/min/g wet wt and decreased precipitously beyond this critical flow level. The relation between CP and flow in the midmyocardium and especially in the subepicardium was more complex. Subepicardial CP content did not correlate well with blood flow; however, in cases in which a coronary stenosis resulted in subendocardial hypoperfusion but subepicardial flow was near or above normal, a close correlation was present between subepicardial and subendocardial CP levels. ATP levels in all layers remained unaltered until blood flow was severely reduced. These results demonstrate that 1) the myocardial high energy phosphate and P(i) levels at any transmural layer are not generally determined by O2 and blood flow limitation under basal conditions; 2) during subtotal coronary occlusion, increased oxygen extraction is able to meet myocardial needs until a critical level of stenosis is reached; 3) below a critical flow level, subendocardial CP and P(i) contents are closely correlated with absolute subendocardial blood flow; and 4) in the presence of a coronary stenosis, subepicardial CP and P(i) contents may change even in the absence of perfusion deficit secondary to loss of subendocardial function.