N-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (N-6 PUFAs), major constituents of corn oil and natural ligands for peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors, increase the rate of growth of established tumors. It has been proposed that chemical peroxisome proliferators increase hepatocyte proliferation by mechanisms involving activation of nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB) and production of low levels of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha) by Kupffer cells; however, how N-6 PUFAs are involved in increased cell proliferation in liver is not well understood. Here, the hypothesis that N-6 PUFAs increase production of mitogens by activation of Kupffer cell NF-kappaB was tested. A single dose of corn oil (2 ml/kg, i.g.), but not olive oil or medium-chain triglycerides (saturated fat), caused an approximately 3-fold increase in hepatocyte proliferation. Similarly, when activity of NF-kappaB in whole rat liver or isolated hepatocytes and Kupffer cells was measured at various time intervals for up to 36 h, only corn oil activated NF-kappaB. Corn oil increased NF-kappaB activity approximately 3-fold 1-2 h after treatment exclusively in the Kupffer cell fraction. In contrast, increases were small and only occurred after approximately 8 h in hepatocytes. The activation of NF-kappaB at 2 h and increases in cell proliferation at 24 h due to corn oil were prevented almost completely when rats were pretreated for 4 days with either dietary glycine (5% w/w), an agent that inactivates Kupffer cells, or the NADPH oxidase inhibitor, diphenyleneiodonium (s.c., 1 mg/kg/day). Furthermore, arachidonic acid (100 microM) activated superoxide production approximately 4-fold when added to isolated Kupffer cells in vitro. This phenomenon was not observed with oleic or linoleic acids. Interestingly, a single dose of corn oil increased TNFalpha mRNA nearly 2-fold 8 h after treatment. It is concluded that corn oil rapidly activates NF-kappaB in Kupffer cells via oxidant-dependent mechanisms. This triggers production of low levels of TNFalpha which is mitogenic in liver and promotes growth of hepatocytes.