Reactive oxygen metabolites generated from the enzyme xanthine oxidase (XO) play an important role in the pathogenesis of ischemia-induced tissue injury. The observation that intracellular proteins such as aspartate transaminase (AST) and alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) are released from the ischemic liver during reperfusion led us to postulate that XO could be released into the systemic circulation. Livers from fasted rats were extirpated, perfused with oxygenated Krebs-Henseleit buffer, and subjected to 2 h ischemia followed by 2 h reperfusion. Reperfusion increased AST in the perfusate from 1 +/- 1 to 830 +/- 280 U/l, whereas ADH increased from 0.3 +/- 0.1 to 95 +/- 26 U/l. Concomitantly, xanthine dehydrogenase (XDH) + XO activity in the perfusate increased from 0 to 4.1 +/- 1.0 mU/ml. A 64% decrease in endogenous tissue XDH + XO activity paralleled release of XDH + XO. The XDH + XO activity predicted to appear in the circulation after hepatic ischemia was sufficient, when supplied with substrate, to produce severe vascular endothelial injury in vitro, even in the presence of serum or whole blood. These results suggest that massive quantities of XDH and XO are released into the circulation after hepatic ischemia and that the resulting reactive oxygen metabolites could produce widespread tissue injury.