Glucose depletion results in cellular stress and reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, which evokes adaptive and protective responses. One such protective response is the induction of haem oxygenase 1 (HO-1), which catalyses the rate-limiting step in haem degradation, liberating iron, CO and biliverdin. The present study evaluated the role of ROS and the mitochondrial electron-transport chain in the induction of HO-1 by glucose deprivation in HepG2 hepatoma cells. Either N-acetylcysteine, an antioxidant, or deferoxamine, an iron chelator, resulted in a dose-dependent inhibition of HO-1 mRNA and protein induction during glucose deprivation, suggesting a redox- and iron-dependent mechanism. Inhibitors of electron-transport chain complex III, antimycin A and myxothiazol, the ATP synthase inhibitor oligomycin and ATP depletion with 2-deoxyglucose or glucosamine also blocked HO-1 induction. To address the involvement of ROS further, specifically H2O2, we showed that overexpression of catalase completely blocked HO-1 activation by glucose deprivation. In contrast, inhibition of nuclear factor κB, mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), protein kinase A, protein kinase C, phosphoinositide 3-kinase, cyclo-oxygenase or cytosolic phospholipase A2, did not prevent HO-1 induction. These results demonstrate that activation of the HO-1 gene by glucose deprivation is mediated by a 'glucose metabolic response' pathway via generation of ROS and that the pathway requires a functional electron-transport chain.