The radical nitric oxide (NO) is a possible mediator of pancreatic beta-cell damage in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM). NO is produced by the enzyme nitric oxide synthase (NOS), in a reaction where arginine is the main substrate. There are different isoforms of NOS, but in the context of immune mediated beta-cell damage the inducible form of NOS (iNOS) is the most relevant. The beta-cell iNOS is similar and encoded by the same gene on chromosome 17 as the iNOS expressed in macrophages and other nucleated cells. iNOS activation depends on gene transcription and de novo enzyme synthesis, and NO seems to induce a negative feedback on iNOS expression. While iNOS mRNA is induced by interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta) alone in rodent insulin-producing cells, a combination of two (IL-1 beta + interferon gamma) (IFN-gamma) or three (IL-1 beta + IFN gamma + tumour necrosis factor alpha) cytokines is required for iNOS activation in human pancreatic islets. The promoter region of the murine iNOS gene has at least 25 binding sites for different transcription factors, and the nuclear transcription factor kappa B is necessary for cytokine-induced iNOS transcription in both rodent and human pancreatic islets. The nature of other transcription factors relevant for iNOS regulation in these cells remains to be determined. Induction of iNOS is paralleled by induction of several other cytokine-dependent genes in beta cells, including argininosuccinate synthetase, cyclooxygenase and manganese superoxide dismutase. Some of these genes may contribute to beta-cell damage, while others are probably involved in beta-cell defence and/or repair. Regulation of iNOS and other related genes in beta cells is complex, and differs in several aspects from that observed in macrophages. There are also important differences in iNOS regulation between rodent and human pancreatic islets. A detailed knowledge of the molecular regulation of these genes in beta cells may be instrumental in the development of new approaches to prevent beta-cell destruction in early IDDM.