Inhibitors of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (p38) have been reported to block tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) and interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta) production in monocytes at the level of mRNA translation. Yet, several studies document that p38 can phosphorylate and activate specific transcription factors. Thus, to understand better the role of p38 during monocyte activation, we sought to determine the extent to which p38 is required for lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced gene expression. For this, differential mRNA display was used to identify LPS-induced genes whose expression was blocked by SB202190, a specific inhibitor of p38. A partial screen identified 10 genes in monoyctes induced 4- to 74-fold by LPS. Of these, genes encoding interferon-induced gene 15, neuroleukin, radiation-inducible immediate-early gene-1, A20, IL-1beta, and superoxide dismutase were suppressed >50% by SB202190. LPS-induced gene activation was not blocked by cycloheximide, indicating that synthesis of intermediate proteins was not required. SB202190 blocked gene induction by 50% when present between 41 and 123 nM, consistent with the potency of this compound as a p38 inhibitor. Furthermore, the ability of SB202190 to block gene activation was stimulus-dependent. LPS and interferon-alpha (IFN-alpha) both up-regulated neuroleukin mRNA, but only LPS-induced neuroleukin mRNA was suppressed by SB202190. In contrast, TNF-alpha and LPS both induced IL-8 mRNA, and induction by either TNF-alpha or LPS was blocked by SB202190. These data were consistent with the ability of LPS and TNF-alpha, but not IFN-alpha, to activate p38 in monocytes. The results provide pharmacological evidence that p38 may be a key mediator of inducible gene expression in monocytes, but its role is stimulus and gene specific.