Regional hypoxia, associated with hemorrhage, is thought to induce a variety of alterations in immune cell function, including upregulation of macrophage-inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) expression and activity (NO production). Furthermore, NO may cause immune cell dysfunction similar to that associated with hemorrhagic shock. However, it remains unknown whether hypoxia per se in the absence of any blood loss is a sufficient stimulus to cause iNOS expression and NO production by macrophages. To study this, male Sprague-Dawley rats (275-325 g) were placed in a plastic box flushed with a gas mixture containing 5% O2-95% N2 for 60 min. Peritoneal and splenic macrophages were isolated 0-5.5 h thereafter, and blood samples were obtained. Nitrite and nitrate (stable degradation products of NO) production by splenic and peritoneal macrophages cultured for 48 h was significantly increased 3 and 5.5 h after hypoxemia. The increase in NO production by macrophages was preceded by elevated expression of iNOS mRNA at 1.5 h after hypoxia. Additionally, interferon-γ (IFN-γ) levels in plasma from rats subjected to hypoxemia were significantly elevated soon after the insult (0- 1.5 h posthypoxemia), suggesting a causal relationship between IFN-γ production and upregulation of iNOS activity. We propose that a hypoxemia- induced increase in macrophage iNOS activity following hemorrhage may in part be responsible for the observed immune dysfunction. Thus attempts to suppress macrophage iNOS activity after this form of trauma may be helpful in improving immune function under those conditions.