Sphingolipid ceramide (N-acetylsphingosine), a bioactive second messenger lipid, was shown to activate reactive oxygen species (ROS), mitochondrial oxidative damage, and apoptosis in neuronal and vascular cells. The proapoptotic effects of tumor necrosis factor-alpha, hypoxia, and chemotherapeutic drugs were attributed to increased ceramide formation. Here we investigated the protective role of nitric oxide (.NO) during hydrogen peroxide (H(2)O(2))-mediated transferrin receptor (TfR)-dependent iron signaling and apoptosis in C(2)-ceramide (C(2)-cer)-treated bovine aortic endothelial cells (BAECs). Addition of C(2)-cer (5-20 microm) to BAECs enhanced .NO generation. However, at higher concentrations of C(2)-cer (> or =20 microm), .NO generation did not increase proportionately. C(2)-cer (20-50 microm) also resulted in H(2)O(2)-mediated dichlorodihydrofluorescein oxidation, reduced glutathione depletion, aconitase inactivation, TfR overexpression, TfR-dependent uptake of (55)Fe, release of cytochrome c from mitochondria into cytosol, caspase-3 activation, and DNA fragmentation. N(w)-Nitro-l-arginine methyl ester (l-NAME), a nonspecific inhibitor of nitricoxide synthases, augmented these effects in BAECs at much lower (i.e. nonapoptotic) concentrations of C(2)-cer. The 26 S proteasomal activity in BAECs was slightly elevated at lower concentrations of C(2)-cer (< or =10 microm) but was greatly suppressed at higher concentrations (>10 microm). Intracellular scavengers of H(2)O(2), cell-permeable iron chelators, anti-TfR receptor antibody, or mitochondria-targeted antioxidant greatly abrogated C(2)-cer- and/or l-NAME-induced oxidative damage, iron signaling, and apoptosis. We conclude that C(2)-cer-induced H(2)O(2) and TfR-dependent iron signaling are responsible for its prooxidant and proapoptotic effects and that .NO exerts an antioxidative and cytoprotective role.