Oxidative stress has been proposed as a mediator of cardiac injury during ischemia and reperfusion. We examined the signalling events initiated by short-term exposure of cardiac myocytes to oxidative stress elicited by hydrogen peroxide. A potent stimulation of tyrosine phosphorylation was observed within 1 to 2 min exposure to 1 m m hydrogen peroxide. Within 5 min, the ERK mitogen-activated protein kinases (ERK MAPKs) were activated. This activation of ERK MAPKs was blocked by N-acetylcysteine (NAC), implicating a role for free radicals in the signalling events. NAC failed to inhibit ERK MAPK activation by the hypertrophic agent, phenylephrine, or hyperosmotic shock. Myxothiazol, an inhibitor of complex III of the mitochondrial electron transport chain, also inhibited ERK MAPK activation by hydrogen peroxide, but not by 12- O -tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) or hyperosmotic shock. Myxothiazol completely inhibited the increase in tyrosine phosphorylated proteins observed with hydrogen peroxide treatment. A variety of inhibitors which act at different levels of the mitochondrial electron transport chain (rotenone, theonyltrifluoroacetone, antimycin A, cyanide) also inhibited activation of the ERK MAPKs by hydrogen peroxide but not TPA or hyperosmotic shock. These studies suggest a novel mechanism of regulation of the ERK MAPK pathway and oxidative stress signalling by hydrogen peroxide.