OBJECTIVE--To assess the importance of 2,3-diphosphoglycerate (2,3-DPG) and oxygen-haemoglobin binding to oxygen transport in patients with congestive heart failure. METHODS--In 30 patients with severe congestive heart failure, arterial, mixed venous, and coronary sinus venous blood concentrations of 2,3-DPG were measured and systemic output and coronary sinus blood flow were measured by a thermodilution technique. Oxygen-haemoglobin affinity was expressed as the oxygen tension in mm Hg at which blood is 50% saturated with oxygen (P50). RESULTS--Compared with normal values, 2,3-DPG was high in arterial blood (2.58 mumol/ml, p = 0.01; 20.8 mumol/g haemoglobin, p < 0.0001). Significant gradients between arterial, mixed venous, and coronary sinus blood 2,3-DPG concentrations were also found (mixed venous = 2.40 mumol/ml, p = 0.05 v arterial blood; coronary sinus venous blood = 2.23 mumol/ml, p < 0.04 v arterial blood). P50 was correspondingly high compared with the accepted normal value (mean 29.7 mm Hg, normal 26.6 mm Hg, p < 0.001). Systemic oxygen transport (351 ml O2/min/m2) varied directly with the forward cardiac index (r = 0.89, p < 0.0001). There was no relation between systemic oxygen transport and arterial oxygen content. Similarly, myocardial oxygen transport was found to vary directly with coronary sinus blood flow. Calculations of changes in cardiac index and coronary sinus blood flow at normal oxygen-haemoglobin binding indicate that a considerable increase in cardiac index and coronary blood flow would be required to maintain similar systemic and myocardial oxygen transport. CONCLUSIONS--In patients with severe heart failure increased 2,3-DPG and reduced oxygen-haemoglobin binding may be compensatory mechanisms that maintain adequate systemic and delivery of oxygen to myocardial tissue.