Pharmacological activation of the prosurvival kinases Akt and ERK-1/2 at reperfusion, after a period of lethal ischemia, protects the heart against ischemia-reperfusion injury. We hypothesized that ischemic preconditioning (IPC) protects the heart by phosphorylating the prosurvival kinases Akt and ERK-1/2 at reperfusion. In isolated perfused Sprague-Dawley rat hearts subjected to 35 min of lethal ischemia, the phosphorylation states of Akt, ERK-1/2, and p70 S6 kinase (p70S6K) were determined after 15 min of reperfusion, and infarct size was measured after 120 min of reperfusion. IPC induced a biphasic response in Akt and ERK-1/2 phosphorylation during the preconditioning and reperfusion phases after the period of lethal ischemia. IPC induced a fourfold increase in Akt, ERK-1/2, and p70S6K phosphorylation at reperfusion and reduced the infarct risk-to-volume ratio (56.9 +/- 5.7 and 20.9 +/- 3.6% for control and IPC, respectively, P < 0.01). Inhibiting the IPC-induced phosphorylation of Akt, ERK-1/2, and p70S6K at reperfusion with the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) inhibitor LY-294002 or the MEK-1/2 inhibitor PD-98059 abrogated IPC-induced protection (46.3 +/- 5.8, 49.2 +/- 4.0, and 20.9 +/- 3.6% for IPC + LY-294002, IPC + PD-98059, and IPC, respectively, P < 0.01), demonstrating that the phosphorylation of these kinases at reperfusion is required for IPC-induced protection. In conclusion, we demonstrate that the reperfusion phase following sustained ischemia plays an essential role in mediating IPC-induced protection. Specifically, we demonstrate that IPC protects the heart by phosphorylating the prosurvival kinases Akt and ERK-1/2 at reperfusion.