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This study examines the hypothesis that ischemic or pharmacologic preconditioning improves postischemic mitochondrial function by attenuating oxidation of mitochondrial proteins. Isolated rat hearts were perfused for 38 min preischemia, followed by 25 min global ischemia and then 60 min reperfusion. Hearts were preconditioned by two episodes of 3 min global ischemia, followed by 2 min of reflow (IP), or by perfusion with 50 μmol/l nicorandil (Nic) for 10 min, followed by 10 min washout. IP and Nic significantly (p < .05) improved postischemic function, which was abolished by bracketing the protocols with 200 μmol/l 5-hydroxydecoanate (5HD) or 300 μmol/l α-mercaptopropionylglycine (MPG). After isolation of cardiac mitochondria, the respiratory control index (RCI) was calculated from State 3 and State 4 respiration. Both IP and Nic significantly (p < .05) improved postischemic RCI, which was depressed 71% from preischemic values in control hearts. The protective effects of IP and Nic were partially abolished by bracketing with 5HD or MPG. Furthermore, mitochondria from ischemic hearts had significantly (p < .05) less ability to resist swelling on Ca2+ loading, which was improved by both IP and Nic. By use of an immunoblot technique, carbonyl content of multiple bands of mitochondrial proteins was observed to be elevated after 25 min ischemia, and still elevated by the end of 60 min reperfusion. Both IP and Nic attenuated the increased protein oxidation observed at the end of ischemia. The protective effect of IP was almost completely abolished by MPG and partially by 5HD, which also partially abolished the protective effect of Nic. These studies support the conclusion that one mechanism for enhanced postischemic function in the preconditioned heart is improved mitochondrial function as a result of decreased oxidation of mitochondrial proteins.