Nitric oxide (NO) during primary culture of articular chondrocytes causes apoptosis via p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase in association with elevation of p53 protein level, caspase-3 activation, and differentiation status. In this study, we characterized the molecular mechanism by which p38 kinase induces apoptosis through activation of p53. We report here that NO-induced activation of p38 kinase leads to activation of NFkappaB, which in turn induces transcription of the p53 gene. Activated p38 kinase also physically associates and phosphorylates the serine 15 residue of p53, which results in accumulation of p53 protein during NO-induced apoptosis. Ectopic expression of wild-type p53 enhanced NO-induced apoptosis, whereas expression of a dominant negative p53 blocked it, indicating that p53 plays an essential role in NO-induced apoptosis of chondrocytes. The increased accumulation of p53 caused expression of Bax, a pro-apoptotic member of the Bcl-2 family that is known to cause apoptosis via release of cytochrome c and caspase activation. These results suggest that NO-activated p38 kinase activates p53 function in two different ways, transcriptional activation by NFkappaB and direct phosphorylation of p53 protein, leading to apoptosis of articular chondrocytes.