Because the role of intracellular Ca2+ in the two-signal process for the induction of nitric oxide (NO) synthesis is controversial, this study was undertaken to examine the role of Ca2+ in the transcriptional regulation of inducible NO synthase (iNOS) in murine peritoneal macrophages. Treatment of the cells with thapsigargin (TG) or 2,5-di-(t-butyl)-1,4-benzodihydroquinone (tBuBHQ), which are the specific and potent Ca(2+)-ATPase inhibitors of endoplasmic reticulum (ER), showed modest effects on tumoricidal function, whereas TG or tBuBHQ in combination with interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) or lipopolysaccharide (LPS) showed marked effects on tumoricidal function of the cells. The tumoricidal effects of the activated macrophages were correlated with the amount of NO synthesis, and totally abrogated by the use of NOS inhibitor, NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (NGMMA). The increases in NO synthesis was reflected as increased amounts of iNOS mRNA by Northern blotting. To confirm that iNOS induction was due to the changes in the intracellular Ca2+ level, the acetoxymethyl ester of 1,2-bis(2-aminophenoxy)ethane-N,N,N',N'-tetraacetic acid (BAPTA-AM), an intracellular Ca2+ chelator, was used. Blocking the increase of cytosolic free Ca2+ significantly decreased the induction of NO synthesis. To demonstrate that intracellular Ca2+ acts as a 'priming' signal rather than a 'triggering' signal on the induction of NO synthesis by murine peritoneal macrophages, we designed several experiments. When the cells were treated with TG 6 hr after the treatment with IFN-gamma, there was no increase in NO synthesis. In addition, when the cells were treated with TG or LPS 6 hr after treatment with tBuBHQ, a synergistic increase on NO synthesis was shown only in the case of LPS. When phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA), a protein kinase C (PKC) activator, was added to the cells 6 hr after the treatment with TG, there was a marked co-operative induction of NO synthesis, even though PMA alone has no effect. Based on the results obtained in this study, we suggest that cytosolic Ca2+ might be enough for the expression of iNOS gene as a priming signal and PKC might be involved in the induction of NO synthesis as a triggering signal by post-transcriptional modification of iNOS mRNA or iNOS itself in the activated murine peritoneal macrophages.