Hyperglycemia can cause vascular dysfunctions by multiple factors including hyperosmolarity, oxidant formation, and protein kinase C (PKC) activation. We have characterized the effect of hyperglycemia on p38 mitogen-activated protein (p38) kinase activation, which can be induced by oxidants, hyperosmolarity, and proinflammatory cytokines, leading to apoptosis, cell growth, and gene regulation. Glucose at 16.5 mM increased p38 kinase activity in a time-dependent manner compared with 5.5 mM in rat aortic smooth muscle cells (SMC). Mannitol activated p38 kinase only at or greater than 22 mM. High glucose levels and a PKC agonist activated p38 kinase, and a PKC inhibitor, GF109203X, prevented its activation. However, p38 kinase activation by mannitol or tumor necrosis factor-alpha was not inhibited by GF109203X. Changes in PKC isoform distribution after exposure to 16.5 mM glucose in SMC suggested that both PKC-beta2 and PKC-delta isoforms were increased. Activities of p38 kinase in PKC-delta- but not PKC-beta1-overexpressed SMC were increased compared with control cells. Activation of p38 kinase was also observed and characterized in various vascular cells in culture and aorta from diabetic rats. Thus, moderate hyperglycemia can activate p38 kinase by a PKC-delta isoform-dependent pathway, but glucose at extremely elevated levels can also activate p38 kinase by hyperosmolarity via a PKC-independent pathway.