Heme oxygenase (HO) catalyzes the rate-limiting step in the degradation of heme to bilirubin. HO-1 is highly induced by heme, its major substrate, and nonheme products, including metal ions and hormones. Interest in HO-1 has been stimulated recently by observations that HO-1 is also highly induced in response to oxidative stress in vitro. The physiologic significance of HO-1 induction following oxidant injury in vivo, however, is poorly understood. In a rat model of lipopolysaccharide endotoxin (LPS)-induced lung injury and sepsis, we demonstrate that the lung responds to LPS by expressing high levels of HO-1 mRNA and enzyme activity. We hypothesize that this HO-1 induction could play a critical role in the lung's defense against LPS. Pretreatment of rats with hemoglobin, a potent inducer of HO-1, resulted in HO-1 induction and more importantly provided complete protection against subsequent lethal endotoxemia (100% survival). Tin protoporphyrin, a competitive inhibitor of HO, blocked this protective effect of hemoglobin and rendered the rats more susceptible to a lethal dose of LPS. Taken together, these data strongly implicate HO-1 in playing an important role in the defense against endotoxic shock, with potential therapeutic implications.