Although previous studies have demonstrated that diabetic nephropathy is attributable to early extracellular matrix accumulation in glomerular mesangial cells, the molecular mechanism by which high glucose induces matrix protein deposition remains not fully elucidated. Rat mesangial cells pretreated with or without inhibitors were cultured in high-glucose or advanced glycation end product (AGE) conditions. Streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats were given superoxide dismutase (SOD)-conjugated propylene glycol to scavenge superoxide. Transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta1, fibronectin expression, Ras, ERK, p38, and c-Jun activation of glomerular mesangial cells or urinary albumin secretion were assessed. Superoxide, not nitric oxide or hydrogen peroxide, mediated high glucose- and AGE-induced TGF-beta1 and fibronectin expression. Pretreatment with diphenyliodonium, not allopurinol or rotenone, reduced high-glucose and AGE augmentation of superoxide synthesis and fibronection expression. High glucose and AGEs rapidly enhanced Ras activation and progressively increased cytosolic ERK and nuclear c-Jun activation. Inhibiting Ras by manumycin A reduced the stimulatory effects of high glucose and AGEs on superoxide and fibronectin expression. SOD or PD98059 pretreatment reduced high-glucose and AGE promotion of ERK and c-Jun activation. Exogenous SOD treatment in diabetic rats significantly attenuated diabetes induction of superoxide, urinary albumin excretion, 8-hydroxy-2'-deoxyguanosine, TGF-beta1, and fibronectin immunoreactivities in renal glomerular mesangial cells. Ras induction of superoxide activated ERK-dependent fibrosis-stimulatory factor and extracellular matrix gene transcription of mesangial cells. Reduction of oxidative stress by scavenging superoxide may provide an alternative strategy for controlling diabetes-induced early renal injury.