Here we investigate the effects of tetracycline base and of a semi-synthetic tetracycline derivative, doxycycline, on the induction of inducible nitric oxide synthase and, hence, on the production of nitric oxide (NO) by lipopolysaccharide in J774 macrophage cultured in vitro. The treatment of J774 line with tetracycline base (6.25-250 microM) or doxycycline (5-50 microM) dose-dependently decreased the lipopolysaccharide-stimulated (1 microg/ml) inducible NO synthase activity and, consequently, nitrite formation. For instance, the inhibition was 70% for tetracycline base at 250 microM and 68% for doxycycline at 50 microM. The inhibitory effect of tetracyclines was due neither to a reduction in the viability of the cells, studied as colorimetric 3-[4,5-dimethylthiazol-2yl]-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide (MTT) reduction assay, nor to an indiscriminate inhibition of total protein synthesis, but to a specific decrease in inducible NO synthase protein content in the cells, as attested by the significant reduction of the expression of inducible NO synthase, assayed by sodium-dodecyl sulphate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE) and Western blot. However, no effect of tetracyclines on inducible NO synthase mRNA accumulation could be demonstrated in lipopolysaccharide-stimulated macrophage line, suggesting that the inhibitory effect of tetracyclines on NO synthesis involves post-transcriptional events. The reduction in lipopolysaccharide-stimulated nitrite accumulation produced by tetracyclines was significantly less when they were applied 6 h after lipopolysaccharide and absent 12 h after lipopolysaccharide, indicating that tetracyclines modify an early event in inducible NO synthase activation operating after mRNA transcription. The findings presented in this study indicate that the modulation of NO synthesis is another possible pathway by which tetracyclines may function as anti-inflammatory compounds.