Cigarette smoking has been suggested as a risk factor for several periodontal diseases. It has also been found that smokers respond less favorably than non-smokers to periodontal therapy. Previous work in our lab has shown that nicotine inhibits human gingival cell migration. Since myofibroblasts play an important role in wound closure, we asked if nicotine affects gingival wound healing process by regulating myofibroblast differentiation. Human gingival fibroblasts (HGFs) from two patients were cultured in 10% fetal bovine serum cell culture medium. Cells were pretreated with different doses of nicotine (0, 0.01, 0.1, and 1 mM) for 2 h, and then incubated with transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta1) (0, 0.25, 0.5, and 1 ng/ml) with or without nicotine for 30 h. The expression level of alpha-smooth muscle actin (alpha-SMA), a specific marker for myofibroblasts, was analyzed by Western blots, immunocytochemistry, and real-time polymerase chain reaction (real-time PCR). Phosphorylated p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (Phospho-p38 MAPK) activity was analyzed by Western blots. TGF-beta1 induced an increase of alpha-SMA protein and mRNA expression, while nicotine (1 mM) inhibited the TGF-beta1-induced expression of alpha-SMA but not beta-actin. Nicotine treatment down-regulated TGF-beta1-induced p38 MAPK phosphorylation. Our results demonstrated for the first time that nicotine inhibits myofibroblast differentiation in human gingival fibroblasts in vitro; supporting the hypothesis that delayed wound healing in smokers may be due to decreased wound contraction by myofibroblasts.