Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) of the n-3 series that have beneficial effects on mammalian heart function are typically found at high levels in fish tissues. The effects of dietary fatty acid composition on cardiac function were investigated in the sturgeon. When compared with sturgeon maintained for 1 yr on a diet enriched with saturated fatty acids (SFA) (the coconut oil-supplemented diet, COD), sturgeon maintained on a diet enriched with n-3 PUFA (the fish oil-supplemented diet, FOD) had higher myocardial 20:5(n-3) and lower 20:4(n-6) content with a consequent decrease in the n-6-to-n-3 ratio (from 0.86 to 0.25) and a lower intrinsic in vitro heart rate (22.0 +/- 1.5 vs. 29.9 +/- 1.0 beats/min) and cardiac power output (PO) (0.33 +/- 0.08 vs. 0.48 +/- 0.03 mW/g), but had a greater in vitro scope for cardiac work (almost twice the maximal-to-basal PO ratio). Reducing the oxygen supply to the hearts significantly decreased, by approximately 40%, the maximal in vitro PO in the COD group of animals but had no effect in the FOD group. These differences in performance were not reflected in heart rate or blood pressure in vivo, either in normoxia or hypoxia. Addition of vitamin E as an antioxidant to the diets reduced intrinsic heart rate by approximately 25% but did not influence the effects (dietary fatty acid composition on in vitro cardiac performance. The results indicate that dietary n-3 PUFA can have beneficial effects on the resistance of the fish heart to environmental stressors such as hypoxia.