BACKGROUND: Normal endothelial function depends on nitric oxide (NO) release by endothelial cells. Asymmetric dimethylarginine (ADMA), by competing with L-arginine, inhibits NO production and may lead to endothelial dysfunction and atherosclerotic development. Our aim was to ascertain the association between ADMA and coronary artery calcification (CAC), a marker of atherosclerotic coronary disease burden. DESIGN: A nested case-control study within the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) cohort, an observational study among young adults residing in four US cities. METHODS: Participants were 263 white and black male and female cases with the presence of CAC and 263 sex and race-matched controls without evidence of CAC by computed tomography, 33-47 years old in 2000-2001. RESULTS: The median level (range) of ADMA was significantly higher in cases (0.55; 0.20-2.22 micromol/l) than in controls (0.53; 0.32-1.30 micromol/l; P=0.03). In conditional logistic regression adjusting for age, field center, educational attainment, smoking status, alcohol consumption, body mass index, waist circumference, hypertension, diabetes, low-density lipoprotein and high-density lipoprotein-cholesterol, triglycerides, renal function and C-reactive protein, the highest tertile of ADMA, compared with the lowest tertile, was associated with 1.80 (95% confidence interval 1.03-3.15) increased odds of the presence of any CAC. By linear regression, a significant independent relationship was also found between ADMA and the degree of CAC. CONCLUSION: These results support a role for ADMA as a biochemical marker of CAC.