The tumor suppressor PTEN is a putative negative regulator of the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase/Akt pathway. Exposure to Zn2+ ions induces Akt activation, suggesting that PTEN may be modulated in this process. Therefore, the effects of Zn2+ on PTEN were studied in human airway epithelial cells and rat lungs. Treatment with Zn2+ resulted in a significant reduction in levels of PTEN protein in a dose- and time-dependent fashion in a human airway epithelial cell line. This effect of Zn2+was also observed in normal human airway epithelial cells in primary culture and in rat airway epithelium in vivo. Concomitantly, levels of PTEN mRNA were also significantly reduced by Zn2+ exposure. PTEN phosphatase activity evaluated by measuring Akt phosphorylation decreased after Zn2+ treatment. Pretreatment of the cells with a proteasome inhibitor significantly blocked zinc-induced reduction of PTEN protein as well as the increase in Akt phosphorylation, implicating the involvement of proteasome-mediated PTEN degradation. Further study revealed that Zn2+-induced ubiquitination of PTEN protein may mediate this process. A phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase inhibitor blocked PTEN degradation induced by Zn2+, suggesting that phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase may participate in the regulation of PTEN. However, both the proteasome inhibitor and phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase inhibitor failed to prevent significant down-regulation of PTEN mRNA expression in response to Zn2+. In summary, exposure to Zn2+ ions causes PTEN degradation and loss of function, which is mediated by an ubiquitin-associated proteolytic process in the airway epithelium.