Compounds from rhizomes of Zingiber officinale, commonly called ginger, have been purported to have anti-inflammatory actions. We have used an in vitro test system to test the anti-inflammatory activity of compounds isolated from ginger rhizome. U937 cells were differentiated and exposed to lipopolysaccharide (LPS) from Escherichia coli (1 microg/ml) in the presence or absence of organic extracts or standard compounds found in ginger (6-, 8-, 10-gingerol or 6-shogaol) for 24 h. Supernatants were collected and analyzed for the production of prostaglandin E(2) (PGE(2)) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) by standard ELISA assays. Predominant compounds in the organic extracts were identified as 6-, 8- 10-gingerols and 6-, 8-, 10-shogaols. Organic extracts or standards containing gingerols were not cytotoxic, while extracts or standards containing predominantly shogaols were cytotoxic at concentrations above 20 microg/ml. Crude organic extracts of ginger were capable of inhibiting LPS induced PGE(2) (IC(50)<0.1 microg/ml) production. However, extracts were not nearly as effective at inhibiting TNF-alpha (IC(50)>30 microg/ml). Thirty three fractions and subfractions, prepared by column chromatography, were analyzed for bioactivity. Extracts containing either predominantly gingerols or shogaols (identified by HPLC) were both highly active at inhibiting LPS-induced PGE(2) production (IC(50)<0.1 microg/ml), while extracts that contained unknown compounds were less effective (IC(50)<3.2 microg/ml). Extracts or standards containing predominantly gingerols were capable of inhibiting LPS-induced COX-2 expression while shogaol containing extracts had no effect on COX-2 expression. These data demonstrate that compounds found in ginger are capable of inhibiting PGE(2) production and that the compounds may act at several sites.