The 29-kDa amino-terminal fibronectin fragment (FN-f) has a potent chondrolytic effect and is thought to be involved in cartilage degradation in arthritis. However, little is known about signal transduction pathways that are activated by FN-f. Here we demonstrated that FN-f induced nitric oxide (NO) production from human articular chondrocytes. Expression of inducible nitric-oxide synthase (iNOS) mRNA and NO production were observed at 6 and 48 h after FN-f treatment, respectively. Interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta) mRNA up-regulation was stimulated by FN-f in human chondrocytes. To address the possibility that FN-f-induced NO release is mediated by IL-1beta production, the effect of IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1ra) was determined. IL-1ra partially inhibited FN-f-induced NO release although it almost completely inhibited IL-1beta-induced NO release. Tyrosine phosphorylation of focal adhesion kinase was induced transiently by FN-f treatment. Blocking antibodies to alpha(5) or beta(1) integrin and Arg-Gly-Asp-containing peptides did not inhibit FN-f-induced NO production. PP2, a Src family kinase inhibitor, or cytochalasin D, which selectively disrupts the network of actin filaments, inhibited both FAK phosphorylation and NO production induced by FN-f, but the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase inhibitor wortmannin had no effect. Analysis of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPK) showed activation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK), c-Jun NH(2)-terminal kinase, and p38 MAPK. High concentrations of SB203580, which inhibit both JNK and p38 MAPK, and PD98059 a selective inhibitor of MEK1/2 that blocks ERK activation, inhibited FN-f induced NO production. These data suggest that focal adhesion kinase and MAPK mediate FN-f induced activation of human articular chondrocytes.