A transcription factor NF kappa B, which regulates expression of various cellular genes involved in immune responses and viral genes including HIV, is sequestered in the cytoplasm as a complex with an inhibitory protein I kappa B. Various extracellular signals induce phosphorylation and rapid degradation of I kappa B alpha to release NF kappa B. Cu2+ was found to inhibit the activation of NF kappa B induced by TNF-alpha, TPA, or H2O2. Deoxycholate treatment of the cytoplasmic extract prepared from cells stimulated by TNF-alpha in the presence of Cu2+ resulted in the release of NF kappa B from I kappa B alpha, indicating that Cu2+ interferes with the dissociation of the NF kappa B-I kappa B complex. Neither phosphorylation nor degradation of I kappa B alpha was observed upon TNF-alpha stimulation in the presence of Cu2+. These results indicate that Cu2+ inhibits the release of NF kappa B by blockade of a signal leading to the phosphorylation of I kappa B alpha.