The inducible form of nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) is present in advanced atherosclerotic lesions. The aim of the present paper was to compare the functionality of iNOS in rabbits fed a 0.3% cholesterol-diet for 24 weeks (Baseline), and 36 weeks, with l-arginine (l-Arg) or vehicle supplementation (Saline) for the last 12 weeks. N-iminoethyl-l-lysine (l-NIL; 10 microM), a selective inhibitor of iNOS, potentiated the contractions to phenylephrine in aortas from Baseline, Saline and l-Arg rabbits confirming the presence of a functional iNOS. In l-Arg rabbits, the contractions induced by l-NIL were less pronounced than those noted in Baseline and Saline rabbits; superoxide dismutase (150 U/ml) significantly increased the phenylephrine-induced contractions only in the l-Arg rabbits. In the presence of NADPH, aortas from l-Arg rabbits produced more superoxide anions than aortas from saline rabbits as evidenced by the lucigenin-enhanced chemiluminescence technique. In conclusion, our results show functional and biochemical evidence for an increased superoxide anion production in atherosclerotic aortas from hypercholesterolemic rabbits treated with l-Arg for 12 weeks. These data may thus help to explain the lack of beneficial effects of l-Arg on atherosclerosis progression in long-term experimental hypercholesterolemia as well as in severely atherosclerotic humans.