Reactive oxygen species (ROS) have been implicated in the pathogenesis of a wide variety of respiratory diseases. We investigated mechanisms of ROS-induced mucin secretion by guinea pig tracheal epithelial (GPTE) cells in primary culture, and ROS-induced activation of the second messenger-producing enzyme phospholipase C (PLC), in GPTE cells and in a virally transformed cell line (BEAS-2B) derived from human bronchial epithelium. Mucin secretion was measured by a monoclonal antibody-based enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, and PLC activation was assessed by anion exchange chromatography. ROS generated enzymatically by xanthine oxidase (XO, 500 microM) in the presence of purine (500 microM) enhanced release of mucin by GPTE cells and activated PLC in GPTE and BEAS cells. Hypersecretion of mucin and activation of PLC in response to purine + XO appeared to occur via an intracellular pathway(s) dependent on endogenously produced nitric oxide and possibly intracellularly generated oxidants. Both responses could be blocked or attenuated by preincubation of the cells with NG-monomethyl-L-arginine, an inhibitor of the enzyme nitric oxide synthase, or with dimethylthiourea, a compound that can react with a variety of intracellular oxidant species. Reactive nitrogen species generated chemically also stimulated secretion of mucin and activated PLC via a mechanism dependent (at least in part) on intracellular oxidant-mediated process(es). The results suggest that intracellularly generated radical species of nitrogen and oxygen may be important modulators of the response of airway epithelial cells to external oxidant stress.