Renal medullary prostaglandins are believed to exert an important functional role in antagonizing vasopressin effects in dehydration. Studies were undertaken to determine the effect of hyperosmolality on cyclooxygenase (COX) isoform expression in the renal medulla. COX-1 and COX-2 mRNA and protein levels were determined by RT-PCR or Western blotting in Sprague-Dawley rats on varying water intakes, in Brattleboro rats and in Long-Evans controls. Over a wide range of urinary tonicity, COX-2 expression correlated closely with urine osmolality levels (R = 0.872). COX-1 levels did not vary. Immunolocalization showed that the stimulation of COX-2 expression by dehydration occurred predominantly in the collecting duct. Hypertonicity caused by addition of NaCl produced a dose- and time-dependent stimulation of COX-2 expression in mIMCD-K2 cells as well as in MDCK cells. COX-1 was unaffected. In the same cell lines, mannitol, sucrose, and raffinose also had a stimulatory effect. The tonicity-stimulated COX-2 expression in mIMCD-K2 cells was almost completely blocked by a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, genistein at 100 microM. In MDCK cells transfected with a 2.7-kb COX-2 promoter and lacZ reporter construct, NaCl induced a twofold increase in beta-galactosidase activity. Using mIMCD-K2 cells, hypertonic NaCl (600 mosmol/kgH(2)O for 24 h) induced a 33-fold increase in PGE(2) release determined by enzyme immunoassay, an effect completely blocked by 3 microM indomethacin or the COX-2-specific blocker N-(2-cyclohexy-4-nitrophenyl)methanesulfonamide (NS-398). We conclude that in inner medulla, COX-2 but not COX-1 is upregulated by hyperosmolality.