Inducible nitric oxide synthase (NOS) is expressed in renal mesangial cells in response to two principal classes of activating signals that interact in a synergistic fashion. These two groups of activators comprise inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin 1 (IL-1) or tumour necrosis factor alpha and agents that elevate cellular levels of cAMP. We have used pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate (PDTC), a potent inhibitor of nuclear factor kappa B (NF kappa B), to determine its role in IL-1 beta- and cAMP-triggered NOS expression. Micromolar amounts of PDTC suppress IL-1 beta-, but not cAMP-stimulated nitrite production, the stable end product of NO formation in mesangial cells. Furthermore, PDTC completely inhibited the increase of NOS mRNA in response to IL-1 beta, while only marginally affecting cAMP-induced NOS mRNA levels. Our data suggest that NF kappa B activation is an essential component of the IL-1 beta signalling pathway responsible for NOS gene activation and that cAMP triggers a separate signalling cascade not involving NF kappa B. These observations may provide a basis for the synergistic stimulation of NOS expression by cytokines and cAMP in mesangial cells.