We have previously demonstrated that urocortin protects cultured cardiac myocytes from ischaemic and reoxygenation injury and decreases the infarct size in the rat heart exposed to regional ischaemia and reperfusion. Urocortin-mediated cardioprotection is via activation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAP kinase, MEK1/2) pathway. In addition, it is well documented that heat shock protein (hsp) 70 and hsp90 are cardioprotective against lethal stress. In this study we show, for the first time, that urocortin induces the expression of hsp90 but not hsp70 in primary cultures of rat neonatal cardiac myocytes. Levels of hsp90 protein increase by 1.5-fold over untreated cells within 10 min of urocortin treatment and are sustained for 24 h with a maximal increase of 2.5-fold at 60 min (P<0.05 at all time points). The increase in hsp90 expression by urocortin was not inhibited by actinomycin D, and urocortin failed to increase hsp90 promoter activity. Urocortin induction of hsp90 was inhibited by the MEK1/2 inhibitor PD98059 (P<0.001) and by cycloheximide, and both inhibitors abrogate urocortin-mediated cardioprotection (P<0.05 for cycloheximide, P<0.001 for PD98059). Hence, MEK1/2 and protein synthesis are involved in the cardioprotective effect of urocortin against hypoxic-mediated cell death, possibly due to an increase in expression of hsp90 protein. This is the first report of heat shock protein induction by urocortin or any other member of the corticotrophin-releasing hormone family.