The phosphorylation of regulatory myosin light chains by the Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent enzyme myosin light chain kinase (MLCK) has been shown to be essential and sufficient for initiation of endothelial cell retraction in saponin permeabilized monolayers (Wysolmerski, R. B. and D. Lagunoff. 1990. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 87:16-20). We now report the effects of thrombin stimulation on human umbilical vein endothelial cell (HUVE) actin, myosin II and the functional correlate of the activated actomyosin based contractile system, isometric tension development. Using a newly designed isometric tension apparatus, we recorded quantitative changes in isometric tension from paired monolayers. Thrombin stimulation results in a rapid sustained isometric contraction that increases 2- to 2.5-fold within 5 min and remains elevated for at least 60 min. The phosphorylatable myosin light chains from HUVE were found to exist as two isoforms, differing in their molecular weights and isoelectric points. Resting isometric tension is associated with a basal phosphorylation of 0.54 mol PO4/mol myosin light chain. After thrombin treatment, phosphorylation rapidly increases to 1.61 mol PO4/mol myosin light chain within 60 s and remains elevated for the duration of the experiment. Myosin light chain phosphorylation precedes the development of isometric tension and maximal phosphorylation is maintained during the sustained phase of isometric contraction. Tryptic phosphopeptide maps from both control and thrombin-stimulated cultures resolve both monophosphorylated Ser-19 and diphosphorylated Ser-19/Thr-18 peptides indicative of MLCK activation. Changes in the polymerization of actin and association of myosin II correlate temporally with the phosphorylation of myosin II and development of isometric tension. Activation results in a 57% increase in F-actin content within 90 s and 90% of the soluble myosin II associates with the reorganizing F-actin. Furthermore, the disposition of actin and myosin II undergoes striking reorganization. F-actin initially forms a fine network of filaments that fills the cytoplasm and then reorganizes into prominent stress fibers. Myosin II rapidly forms discrete aggregates associated with the actin network and by 2.5 min assumes a distinct periodic distribution along the stress fibers.