Herpetic epithelial and stromal keratitis is a sight-threatening ocular infection. To study the role of the epithelium in the innate response to herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) infection of the cornea, we used a telomerase-immortalized human corneal epithelial cell (HCEC) line, HUCL, and primary HCECs as a model and infected the cells with HSV-1 (KOS strain). HSV-1 infection of HCECs resulted in a two-phase activation of nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB), JNK and p38, with the first peak at 1-4 hr and a second peak at 8 hr. Concomitant with the first peak of activation, transcriptional expression of interleukin (IL)-6, IL-8, tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha and interferon (IFN)-beta was rapidly induced in HSV-1-infected cells. HSV-1 infection also induced the production of IL-6, IL-8, and TNF-alpha in both HUCL cells and primary HCECs. Coincident with the second phase of NF-kappaB activation in HSV-1-infected HCECs, the expression of Toll-like receptor 7 (TLR7) was induced, whereas the level of TLR3 was greatly down-regulated. Thus, in response to HSV-1 infection, HCECs produce proinflammatory cytokines, leading to infiltration, and IFNs to enhance the antiviral activity in the cornea, probably through sequential activation of TLRs.