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Structural analysis of the promoters of several endothelial genes induced at sites of inflammatory or immune responses reveals binding sites for the transcription factor nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kappa B). Endothelial cells express transcripts encoding the p50/p105 and p65 components of NF-kappa B and the rel-related proto-oncogene c-rel; steady state levels of these transcripts are transiently increased by tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). Western blotting revealed that stimulation of endothelial cells with TNF-alpha resulted in nuclear accumulation of the p50 and p65 components of NF-kappa B. Ultraviolet crosslinking and immunoprecipitation demonstrated binding of the p50 and p65 components of NF-kappa B to the E-selectin kappa B site. Endothelial cells express an inhibitor of NF-kappa B activation, I kappa B-alpha (MAD-3). Protein levels of this inhibitor fall rapidly after TNF-alpha stimulation. In parallel, p50 and p65 accumulate in the nucleus and RNA transcript levels for I kappa B-alpha are dramatically upregulated. Recombinant p65 stimulates expression of E-selectin promoter-reporter constructs. I kappa B-alpha inhibits p65 or TNF-alpha- stimulated E-selectin promoter-reporter gene expression in transfected endothelial cells. The NF-kappa B and I kappa B-alpha system may be an inducible regulatory mechanism in endothelial activation.