An ischaemic preconditioning protocol and subsequent sustained ischaemia were characterized by activation and attenuation of p38 MAPK phosphorylation, respectively. However, the significance of events downstream of p38 MAPK needs investigation. Therefore the temporal relationship between phosphorylation of p38 MAPK and its downstream substrate HSP27 was studied during either an ischaemic or beta-adrenergic preconditioning protocol and during sustained ischaemia. Isolated rat hearts were preconditioned (with or without a p38 MAPK inhibitor, SB203580) with 1 x 5 min or 3 x 5 min global ischaemia or 5 min beta-adrenergic stimulation (10(-7) M isoproterenol), followed by 25 min sustained ischaemia and 30 min reperfusion. Hearts were freeze-clamped at different time intervals and fractionated to determine p38 MAPK and HSP27 phosphorylation, via Western blotting. Significant phosphorylation of cytosolic p38 MAPK and membrane (myo-fibrillar) HSP27 occurred at the end of the first preconditioning episode. However, p38 MAPK phosphorylation disappeared during subsequent preconditioning episodes, while HSP27 phosphorylation was maintained for the duration of the protocol. Similar changes in p38 MAPK and HSP27 occurred with 5 min beta-adrenergic preconditioning. After 25 min ischaemia, significant phosphorylation of cytosolic and membrane HSP27 was observed, while p38 MAPK phosphorylation was attenuated in ischaemic and beta-adrenergic preconditioned compared to non-preconditioned hearts. SB203580-induced abolishment of p38 MAPK and HSP27 phosphorylation during the triggering phase of both preconditioning protocols reversed the changes in these parameters seen after sustained ischaemia. The results suggest that p38 MAPK activation triggers HSP27 phosphorylation during both the preconditioning protocols and during sustained ischaemia. Protection of preconditioned hearts during sustained ischaemia was characterized by phosphorylation of both cytosolic and myofibrillar HSP27.