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Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) is a common vascular disease with, as of yet, unclear mechanism. Increased elastase activity and elastin degradation in the aorta are consistent findings in human AAA. Also, elastase perfusion of the aorta promotes aortic dilation in animal models of AAA. Although elastase-induced degradation of extracellular matrix proteins and the ensuing inflammation of the aortic wall have been implicated as possible causes of the aortic dilation in AAA, little is known regarding the effects of elastase on the mechanisms of aortic smooth muscle contraction. The purpose of this study was to test the hypothesis that elastase promotes aortic dilation by inhibiting the Ca2+ mobilization mechanisms of smooth muscle contraction. Isometric contraction and 45Ca2+ influx were measured in aortic strips isolated from male Sprague-Dawley rats non-treated or treated with elastase. Initial experiments suggested that elastase alone caused matrix degradation. To avoid potential degradation of the extracellular matrix proteins by elastase, the same experiments were repeated in the presence of saturating concentrations of elastin (10 mg/ml). In normal Krebs (2.5 mM Ca2+), phenylephrine (Phe, 10−5 M) caused contraction of the aortic strips that was significantly inhibited by elastase. The elastase-induced inhibition of Phe contraction was concentration- and time-dependent. At 5 U/ml elastase, the inhibition of Phe contraction was rapid in onset (2.4 ± 0.3 minutes) and complete in 32 ± 4 minutes. The inhibitory effects of elastase on Phe contraction were partially reversible. In Ca2+-free (2 mM EGTA) Krebs, Phe caused a small contraction that was not inhibited by elastase, suggesting that elastase does not inhibit Ca2+ release from the intracellular stores. Membrane depolarization by 96 mM KCl, which stimulates Ca2+ entry from the extracellular space, caused a contraction that was inhibited by elastase in a time-dependent and reversible fashion. The reversible inhibitory effects of elastase, particularly in the presence of saturating concentrations of elastin, suggest that they are not due to dissolution of the extracellular matrix or permanent damage to the smooth muscle contractile proteins. Elastase also caused significant inhibition of Phe- and KCl-induced 45Ca2+ influx. These data suggest that elastase promotes aortic relaxation by inhibiting the Ca2+ entry mechanism of vascular smooth muscle contraction, and thus further explain the role of increased elastase activity during the early development of AAA.