Free radicals may impair vital functions of several types of tissues including coronary artery smooth muscle. Because the Na+ pump plays a key role in maintaining coronary tone, the effects of superoxide and peroxide on this protein were examined. Ouabain-sensitive Rb+ uptake by denuded coronary artery rings was used in lieu of K+ transport by this pump. It was inhibited by exposing the rings for 90 min either to peroxide [50% inhibitory concentration (IC50) = 0.56 +/- 0.18 mM] or to superoxide generated by xanthine oxidase (XO; 0.3 mM xanthine and xanthine oxidase, IC50 = 0.08 +/- 02 mU/ml). The effect of peroxide was not overcome by superoxide dismutase and that of superoxide was not prevented by catalase. K(+)-activated ouabain-sensitive hydrolysis of p-nitrophenyl phosphate in the plasma membrane-enriched fraction isolated from the coronary artery smooth muscle was monitored as the hydrolytic activity of the Na+ pump. It was inhibited by exposing the membranes only to very high concentrations of peroxide (IC50 = 9.85 +/- 3.5 mM) or XO (IC50 = 5 +/- 2 mU/ml). The exposure to 2.5 mM H2O2 or 0.5 mU/ml XO reduced the Na(+)-dependent acylphosphate levels only by 41 +/- 3 and 30 +/- 4%, respectively even though either inhibited the Rb+ uptake by > 80%. Thus superoxide and peroxide uncoupled the hydrolytic activity of the Na+ pump from Rb+ uptake. We speculate that such an uncoupling in ischemia and reperfusion would result in dual damage: ion imbalance and continuous hydrolysis of ATP in the cells that are already starved.