The radical nitric oxide (NO) may be a mediator of beta-cell damage in IDDM. The cytokines IFN-gamma and IL-1beta are required for expression of the enzyme nitric oxide synthase (iNOS), and NO production by human pancreatic islets. In this study, possible mechanisms by which IFN-gamma participates in iNOS messenger RNA (mRNA) expression were evaluated in both rodent and human islets cells. Addition of IFN-gamma, before or after arrest of IL-1beta-induced iNOS gene transcription by actinomycin D, did not prolong iNOS mRNA half life in the rat insulin-producing cell line RINm5F (RIN cells). IFN-gamma also failed to modify IL-1beta-induced activation of the transcription factor kappaB (NF-kappaB) in RIN cells, as determined by electrophoretic mobility shift assay. However, IFN-gamma induced an early (30 min(-1) h) increase in interferon regulatory factor-1 (IRF-1) mRNA expression and a later (2 h) 19-fold increase in RIN cell nuclear IRF-1 protein content, an effect further potentiated by IL-1beta. The total cellular content of IRF-1 protein increased by 30- to 50-fold in human islets exposed for 2-8h to IFN-gamma or IFN-gamma + IL-1beta. IL-1beta alone induced a marginal and transient increase in IRF-1. It has been previously reported that nicotinamide prevents IL-1beta-induced IRF-1 expression in rat pancreatic islets. However, nicotinamide (20 mM) presently failed to prevent IL-1beta + IFN-gamma-induced IRF-1 protein expression in human pancreatic islets. In conclusion, the effects of IFN-gamma on iNOS expression can neither be explained by iNOS mRNA stabilization nor increased NF-kappaB activation. However, IFN-gamma induces an early increase in cellular IRF-1 content, and this may contribute to increased iNOS mRNA expression.