A brief period of hepatic ischemia protects the liver against subsequent ischemia-reperfusion (IR) injury, but the mechanism of such preconditioning is poorly understood. We examined whether preconditioning activated nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB), the stress-activated protein kinases (SAPK), c-Jun N-terminal kinase-1 (JNK-1) and p38, and entry into the cell cycle. We used a murine model of partial hepatic ischemia. Preconditioning was performed by clamping the vasculature for 2 to 20 minutes, and allowing reperfusion for 10 minutes before 90-minute ischemia or IR. As assessed by serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels and liver histology, preconditioning periods of 5 and 10 minutes were highly protective against IR injury, whereas 2-, 15-, and 20-minute intervals were ineffective. Preconditioning was associated with entry of hepatocytes into the cell cycle within 2 hours of subsequent IR, as indicated by proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) nuclear staining, induction of cyclin D1 and numerous mitotic figures; in the absence of preconditioning, such changes were not seen until 24 hours. Preconditioning increased nuclear binding of NF-κB within 30 minutes of the subsequent ischemic interval, paralleled by degradation of inhibitory (binding) protein for NF-κB (IκBα). Ischemic preconditioning also activated p38 kinase and JNK-1, which are known to converge on cyclin D1 regulation. The protective effect of the preconditioning regimen was more closely associated with p38 kinase than JNK-1 activation. In conclusion, the hepatoprotective effects of ischemic preconditioning are associated with activation of NF-κB and SAPKs that are associated with entry of hepatocytes into the cell cycle, a critical biological effect that favors survival of the liver against ischemic and IR injury.