The mechanisms by which elevated levels of free fatty acids cause insulin resistance are not well understood. In addition, accumulating evidence suggests a link between inflammation and type 2 diabetes. Here, we report that exposure of C2C12 skeletal muscle cells to 0.5 mm palmitate results in increased mRNA levels (3.5-fold induction; P < 0.05) and secretion (control 375 +/- 57 vs. palmitate 1129 +/- 177 pg/ml; P < 0.001) of the proinflammatory cytokine IL-6. Palmitate increased nuclear factor-kappaB activation and coincubation of the cells with palmitate and the nuclear factor-kappaB inhibitor pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate prevented both IL-6 expression and secretion. Furthermore, incubation of palmitate-treated cells with calphostin C, a strong and specific inhibitor of protein kinase C, and phorbol myristate acetate, that down-regulates protein kinase C in long-term incubations, abolished induction of IL-6 production. Finally, exposure of skeletal muscle cells to palmitate caused a fall in the mRNA levels of glucose transporter 4 and insulin-stimulated glucose uptake, whereas in the presence of anti-IL-6 antibody, which neutralizes the biological activity of mouse IL-6 in cell culture, these reductions were prevented. These findings suggest that IL-6 may mediate several of the prodiabetic effects of palmitate.