Ninety minutes after i.v. injection of Escherichia coli lipopolysaccharide (LPS) (1 mg/kg) into rats, phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA)-stimulated superoxide anion (O2-) secretion was enhanced in suspensions of in vivo LPS-treated alveolar macrophages (AM phi) when compared with saline (SAL)-treated AM phi. The purpose of this investigation was to dissect the in vitro mechanism of PMA-stimulated O2- generation in both LPS and SAL-treated rat AM phi, with a panel of inhibitors of protein kinase C (PKC), protein serine-threonine phosphatase(s) (PSP), protein tyrosine kinase(s) (PTK) and phosphatase(s) (PTP), phospholipase A2 (PLA2), cyclooxygenase (CO) and 5-lipoxygenase (5-LO). The following agents blocked PMA-stimulated O2- generation in both LPS- and SAL-treated AM phi (expressed as percentage of control): 1) PKC inhibitors: staurosporine: 100 nM, 7.0% (LPS) and 5.6% (SAL); sphingosine: 10 microM, 21% (LPS) and 10.5% (SAL); 2) PTK inhibitor: genistein: 100 microM, 44% (LPS) and 31% (SAL); 3) PTP inhibitors: phenylarsine oxide, 10 microM, 12.1% (LPS) and 18% (SAL); diamide, 1000 microM, 10.1% (LPS) and 10.5% (SAL); and 4) PLA2 inhibitors: manoalide: 1 microM, 29.3% (LPS) and 5.2% (SAL); scalaradial: 1 microM, 7.7% (LPS) and 7.1% (SAL); and WAY 125,984: 10 microM, 17.1% (LPS) and 14.5% (SAL). In addition, it was observed that exogenously added arachidonic acid (AA)-stimulated O2- generation in a time- and dose-dependent manner in both LPS and SAL-treated AM phi. The following inhibitors enhanced or did not affect PMA-stimulated O2- generation in LPS- and SAL-treated AM phi (expressed as percentage of of control): 1) PSP inhibitors: okadaic acid: 0.5 microM, 117% (LPS) and 153% (SAL); calyculin A: 1 microM, 112% (LPS) and 101% (SAL); 2) CO and 5-LO inhibitors: indomethacin: 10 microM, 107% (LPS) and 90% (SAL); WY 50, 295: 1 microM, 99% (LPS) and 103% (SAL); and 3) the PTP inhibitor orthovanadate upon prolonged preincubation. In both in vivo LPS- or SAL-primed AM phi, PMA-stimulated O2- generation appears to be modulated by PKC, PLA2, AA, PTK, PTP and PSP. No modulatory role was evident for either CO or 5-LO metabolites. These findings might bear on the design of therapeutic approaches for the modulation of O2- release by AM phi in the early stages of sepsis and adult respiratory distress syndrome.