Human pulmonary artery smooth muscle cells (hPASM cells) express PDE4A10, PDE4A11, PDE4B2, PDE4C and PDE4D5 isoforms. Hypoxia causes a transient up-regulation of PDE4B2 that reaches a maximum after 7 days and sustained up-regulation of PDE4A10/11 and PDE4D5 over 14 days in hypoxia. Seven days in hypoxia increases both intracellular cAMP levels, protein kinase A (PKA) activity and activated, phosphorylated extracellular signal regulated kinase (pERK) but does not alter either PKA isoform expression or total cAMP phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) activity or cAMP phosphodiesterase-3 (PDE3) activity. Both the cyclooxygenase inhibitor, indomethacin and the ERK inhibitors, UO126 and PD980589 reverse the hypoxia-induced increase in intracellular cAMP levels back to those seen in normoxic hPASM cells. Challenge of normoxic hPASM cells with prostaglandin E(2) (PGE(2)) elevates cAMP to levels comparable to those seen in hypoxic cells but fails to increase intracellular cAMP levels in hypoxic hPASM cells. The adenylyl cyclase activator, forskolin increases cAMP levels in both normoxic and hypoxic hPASM cells to comparable elevated levels. Challenge of hypoxic hPASM cells with indomethacin attenuates total PDE4 activity whilst challenge with UO126 increases total PDE4 activity. We propose that the hypoxia-induced activation of ERK initiates a phospholipase A(2)/COX-driven autocrine effect whereupon PGE(2) is generated, causing the activation of adenylyl cyclase and increase in intracellular cAMP. Despite the hypoxia-induced increases in the expression of PDE4A10/11, PDE4B2 and PDE4D5 and activation of certain of these long PDE4 isoforms through PKA phosphorylation, we suggest that the failure to see any overall increase in PDE4 activity is due to ERK-mediated phosphorylation and inhibition of particular PDE4 long isoforms. Such hypoxia-induced increase in expression of PDE4 isoforms known to interact with certain signalling scaffold proteins may result in alterations in compartmentalised cAMP signalling. The hypoxia-induced increase in cAMP may represent a compensatory protective mechanism against hypoxia-induced mitogens such as endothelin-1 and serotonin.