Mechanical loading of bone may be transmitted to osteocytes and osteoblasts via shear stresses at cell surfaces generated by the flow of interstitial fluid. The stimulated production of prostaglandins, which mediates some effects of mechanical loading on bone, is dependent on inducible cyclo-oxygenase 2 (COX-2) in bone cells. We examined the fluid shear stress (FSS) induction of COX-2 gene expression in immortalized MC3T3-E1 osteoblastic cells stably transfected with -371/+70 base pairs (bp) of the COX-2 5'-flanking DNA (Pluc371) and in primary osteoblasts (POBs) from calvaria of mice transgenic for Pluc371. Cells were plated on collagen-coated glass slides and subjected to steady laminar FSS in a parallel plate flow chamber. FSS, from 0.14 to 10 dynes/cm2, induced COX-2 messenger RNA (mRNA) and protein. FSS (10 dynes/cm2) induced COX-2 mRNA within 30 minutes, with peak effects at 4 h in MC3T3-E1 cells and at > or = 8 h in POBs. An inhibitor of new protein synthesis puromycin blocked the peak induction of COX-2 mRNA by FSS. COX-2 promoter activity, measured as luciferase activity, correlated with COX-2 mRNA expression in both MC3T3-E1 and POB cells. FSS induced phosphorylation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) in MC3T3-E1 cells, with peak effects at 5 minutes. Inhibiting ERK phosphorylation with the specific inhibitor PD98059 inhibited FSS induction of COX-2 mRNA by 55-70% and FSS stimulation of luciferase activity by > or = 80% in both MC3T3-E1 and POB cells. We conclude that FSS transcriptionally induces COX-2 gene expression in osteoblasts, that the maximum induction requires new protein synthesis, and that induction occurs largely via an ERK signaling pathway.