Acute inflammatory stimuli elevate both the production of prostaglandins and the synthesis and activity of prostaglandin synthase/cyclooxygenase enzyme (COX) in murine peritoneal macrophages. Adrenalectomy also elevates prostaglandin production, COX synthesis and COX activity in these cells. We have utilized cDNA probes and antisera specific for the products of the prostaglandin synthase/cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1) and TIS10/prostaglandin synthase-2/cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) genes to demonstrate that adrenalectomy causes elevation of mRNA and protein from the COX-2 gene, but not from the COX-1 gene, in peritoneal macrophages. Dexamethasone replacement suppressed the elevation of COX-2 mRNA message, COX-2 protein and the increased COX enzyme activity observed in adrenalectomized animals. In contrast, both COX-1 message and COX-1 protein levels were unaffected either by adrenalectomy or by dexamethasone administration. Thus, under normal physiological conditions, tonic glucocorticoid inhibition appears to play a major role in the in vivo regulation of the COX-2 gene. These data are consistent with COX-1 being the constitutive, housekeeping enzyme in macrophages in normal physiological conditions and with the enhanced prostaglandin synthesis seen after an inflammatory stimulus resulting from the rapid induction and activity of COX-2.