The current study focuses on the role of p38 MAP kinase in response to acute preconditioning stimuli and ischemia. Exposure of the rat myoblast cell line H9C2 to preconditioning stimuli, viz. brief duration of ischemia (metabolic inhibition) and adenosine, led to activation of p38 MAP kinase. The protective preconditioning effect of these stimuli against lethal ischemic insult was abolished in the presence or p38 MAP kinase inhibitor SB 203580 but not in the presence of MEK inhibitor PD 98509. Phorbol myristate acetate, PMA, which activates protein kinase C, PKC, activates p38 MAP kinase. and this activation is inhibited by PKC inhibitor G. 6850. The preconditioning effect of PMA was abolished by SB 203580 and also by protein kinase C inhibitor Go 6850. This indicates that the protective action of preconditioning by PKC is mediated via activation of p38 MAP kinase. Paradoxically, the presence of SB 203580 and Go 6850 during the lethal stress protected the cells against cell death. The mode of cell death in this study whether necrotic or apoptotic has not been established. Lethal ischemic stress activates p38 MAP kinase. Preconditioning the cells decreases the activation of p38 MAP kinase in response to the second lethal stress. These findings highlight the role of p38 MAP kinase in ischemic preconditioning v ischemia. Furthermore, our findings in an in vitro model using a proliferating cell line indicate that the duration and/or intensity of stimuli activating p38 kinase probably determines whether it would play a beneficial v deleterious role in cell survival in response to stress.