The human immunodeficiency virus, type 1 (HIV-1) promoter is known to be activated by proinflammatory cytokines and UV light. These stimuli also activate various members of the mitogen-activated protein kinase family, including JNK/SAPK and CSBP/p38. In HeLa cells containing an integrated HIV-1 long terminal repeat (LTR) -driven reporter, we now show that the specific p38 inhibitor, SB203580, inhibits activation of the HIV-1 LTR by interleukin-1, tumor necrosis factor, UV light, and osmotic stress. Inhibition was 70-90% in all but the case of tumor necrosis factor stimulation, where inhibition was 50%. Each of these stimuli activated p38, which was inhibited by SB203580 in vitro and in vivo with an IC50 (between 0.1 and 1 microM) similar to that required to inhibit transcription. In contrast, SB203580 had no effect on JNK, which was also activated by these stimuli. The NFkappaB sites in the HIV-1 LTR were required for a response to cytokines but not to UV, and SB203580 remained capable of inhibiting UV activation in the absence of the NFkappaB sites. Studies in which SB203580 was added at different times relative to UV stimulation suggested that the critical p38-mediated phosphorylation event occurred between 2 and 4 h after UV treatment. These data indicate that p38 is required for HIV-1 LTR activation but that the action of p38 is delayed, presumably due to substrate unavailability or inaccessibility.