Nitric oxide (NO) is implicated in a number of inflammatory processes and is an important mediator in animal models of rheumatoid arthritis and in in vitro models of cartilage degradation. The pyridinyl imidazole SB 203580 inhibits p38 mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase in vitro, blocks proinflammatory cytokine production in vitro and in vivo, and is effective in animal models of arthritis. The purpose of this study was to determine whether SB 203580 could inhibit p38 MAP kinase activity, NO production, and inducible NO synthase (iNOS) in IL-1 stimulated bovine articular cartilage/chondrocyte cultures. The results indicated that SB 203580 inhibited both IL-1 stimulated p38 MAP kinase activity in isolated chondrocytes and NO production in bovine chondrocytes and cartilage explants with an IC50 value of approximately 1 microM. To inhibit NO production, SB 203580 had to be present in cartilage explant cultures during the first 8 h of IL-1 stimulation, and activity was lost when it was added 24 h following IL-1. SB 203580 did not inhibit iNOS activity, as measured by the conversion of arginine to citrulline, when added directly to cultures where the enzyme had already been induced, but had to be present during the induction period. Using a 372-bp probe for bovine iNOS we demonstrated inhibition of IL-1-induced mRNA by SB 203580 at both 4 and 24 h following IL-1 treatment. The iNOS mRNA levels were consistent with NO levels in 24-h cell culture supernatants of the IL-1-stimulated bovine chondrocytes used to obtain the RNA.