Ischemic preconditioning protects the kidney from subsequent ischemic injury but the signal transduction pathways involved are unknown. Human proximal tubular (HK-2) cells were protected from injury with 2.5 m M H<sub>2</sub>O<sub>2</sub> by preconditioning with a single 15-min exposure to 500 µ M H<sub>2</sub>O<sub>2</sub> followed by 16 h of recovery (oxidant preconditioning). To identify the signaling pathways involved in oxidant preconditioning, we utilized inhibitors of several signaling intermediates (MAPK/ERK kinase I, p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), protein kinase C and tyrosine kinase). A rapid but transient increase in p38 MAPK was observed following oxidant preconditioning and an inhibitor of p38 MAPK (SB203580) abolished the protection provided by oxidant preconditioning. Oxidant preconditioning was also associated with heat shock protein-27 phosphorylation (by p38 MAPK) and an increased synthesis of heme oxygenease-1 (HO-1). Stimulation or inhibition of HO-1 with hemin or Zn(II) protoporphyrin IX, respectively, mimicked or abolished oxidant preconditioning-mediated cytoprotection. Inhibitors of new protein synthesis (cycloheximide) and gene transcription (actinomycin D) also blocked the cytoprotection by oxidant preconditioning. We conclude that oxidant preconditioning protects HK-2 cells against more severe oxidant injury via activation of signaling pathways that include p38 MAPK and increased synthesis of HO-1.