This study analyzes the effects and mechanisms of heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1)-mediated cytoprotection in rat livers exposed to cold preservation. In the first series, rats were pretreated with cobalt protoporphyrin (CoPP) or zinc protoporphyrin (ZnPP), HO-1 inducer and antagonist, respectively. Livers were stored at 4 degrees C for 24 h, and then perfused ex vivo for 2 h. Livers pretreated with CoPP had significantly higher portal venous blood flow and increased total bile production, as compared with the ZnPP group. This correlated with histologic (Banff) criteria of hepatocyte injury/liver function. In the second series, rat livers were stored at 4 degrees C for 24 h or 40 h, and then transplanted into syngeneic recipients. After 24 h of preservation, 80% of rats bearing CoPP-pretreated liver grafts survived 21 days (vs. 50% in controls). After 40h of cold preservation, liver transplant survival at day 1, 7 and 21 for the CoPP group was: 100%, 71% and 57%, respectively (vs. 50%, 50% and 33% in controls). This correlated with improved hepatic function/histologic (Suzuki) criteria of hepatocyte injury after HO-1 overexpression (immunohistology/Western blots) by infiltrating macrophages. This study documents the potential utility of HO-1-inducing agents in preventing ischemia/reperfusion injury resulting from prolonged storage of liver transplants.