We examined the effects of dexamethasone treatment on nuclear factor (NF)-kappa B activation and lung inflammation in transgenic reporter mice expressing photinus luciferase under the control of an NF-kappa B-dependent promoter (HLL mice). In vitro studies with bone marrow and peritoneal macrophages derived from these mice showed that treatment with dexamethasone blocked luciferase induction after treatment with Escherichia coli lipopolysaccharide (LPS); however, treatment of mice with intraperitoneal injection of dexamethasone at doses of 0.3 microg/g and 1 microg/g failed to inhibit NF-kappa B-dependent luciferase activity in the lungs. Furthermore, intraperitoneal treatment with 10 microg/g of dexamethasone prior to LPS paradoxically resulted in augmented luciferase activity as compared with that of mice treated with LPS alone. NF-kappa B-dependent luciferase expression in the lungs was detected by bioluminescence imaging and by measurement of luciferase activity in homogenized lung tissue. In these studies, there was an excellent correlation between indirect measurement of luciferase activity by bioluminescence in living mice and direct measurement of luciferase activity in lung tissue. Dexamethasone treatment did not affect LPS-induced neutrophilic influx or the concentration of macrophage inflammatory protein-2 in lung lavage fluid. These findings emphasize the potential error of extrapolating in vitro findings to complex in vivo events such as regulation of inflammation.