Bacterial lipopolysaccharides (LPS) are potent inducers of proinflammatory signaling pathways via the activation of nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kappaB) and mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), causing changes in the processes that control lung fluid homeostasis and contributing to the pathogenesis of lung disease. In human H441 airway epithelial cells, incubation of cells with 15 microg ml(-1) LPS caused a significant reduction in amiloride-sensitive I (sc) from 15 +/- 2 to 8 +/- 2 microA cm(-2) (p = 0.01, n = 13) and a shift in IC(50) amiloride of currents from 6.8 x 10(-7) to 6.4 x 10(-6) M. This effect was associated with a decrease in the activity of 5 pS, highly Na(+) selective, amiloride-sensitive <1 microM channels (HSC) and an increase in the activity of approximately 18 pS, nonselective, amiloride-sensitive >10 microM cation channels (NSC) in the apical membrane. LPS decreased alphaENaC mRNA and protein abundance, inferring that LPS inhibited alphaENaC gene expression. This correlated with the decrease in HSC activity, indicating that these channels, but not NSCs, were comprised of at least alphaENaC protein. LPS increased NF-kappaB DNA binding activity and phosphorylation of extracellular signal-related kinase (ERK)1/2, but decreased phosphorylation of ERK5 in H441 cells. Pretreatment of monolayers with PD98059 (20 microM) inhibited ERK1/2 phosphorylation, promoted phosphorylation of ERK5, increased alphaENaC protein abundance, and reversed the effect of LPS on I (sc) and the shift in amiloride sensitivity. Inhibitors of NF-kappaB activation were without effect. Taken together, our data indicate that LPS acts via ERK signaling pathways to decrease alphaENaC transcription, reducing HSC/ENaC channel abundance, activity, and transepithelial Na(+) transport in H441 airway epithelial cells.