This study was aimed at identifying the molecular mechanisms by which ceramide inhibits telomerase activity in the A549 human lung adenocarcinoma cell line. C(6)-ceramide (20 microm) caused a significant reduction of telomerase activity at 24 h as detected using the telomeric repeat amplification protocol, and this inhibition correlated with decreased telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT) protein. Semi-quantitative reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and Northern blot analyses showed that C(6)-ceramide significantly decreased hTERT mRNA in a time-dependent manner. Electrophoretic mobility shift and supershift assays demonstrated that the binding activity of c-Myc transcription factor to the E-box sequence on the hTERT promoter was inhibited in response to C(6)-ceramide at 24 h. These results were also confirmed by transient transfections of A549 cells with pGL3-Basic plasmid constructs containing the functional hTERT promoter and its E-box deleted sequences cloned upstream of a luciferase reporter gene. Further analysis using RT-PCR and Western blotting showed that c-Myc protein but not its mRNA levels were decreased in response to C(6)-ceramide at 24 h. The effects of ceramide on the c-Myc protein were shown to be due to a reduction in half-life via increased ubiquitination. Similar results were obtained by increased endogenous ceramide levels in response to nontoxic concentrations of daunorubicin, resulting in the inhibition of telomerase and c-Myc activities. Furthermore, the elevation of endogenous ceramide by overexpression of bacterial sphingomyelinase after transient transfections also induced the inhibition of telomerase activity with concomitant decreased hTERT and c-Myc protein levels. Taken together, these results show for the first time that both exogenous and endogenous ceramides mediate the modulation of telomerase activity via decreased hTERT promoter activity caused by rapid proteolysis of the ubiquitin-conjugated c-Myc transcription factor.