To identify possible intracellular mediators of hair cell (HC) death due to ototoxins, we treated basal-turn, neonatal, rat HCs in vitro with several intracellular signaling inhibitors, prior to and during gentamicin exposure. The general guanine nucleotide-binding protein (G-protein) inhibitor, GDP-betaS (1 mM), provided potent HC protection, suggesting involvement of G-proteins in the intracellular pathway linking gentamicin exposure to HC death. ADP-betaS had minimal effect, indicating that the protection is specific to guanosine diphosphate (GDP)-binding, rather than a general reaction to nucleotides. Azido-GTP(32) photolabeling and gel electrophoresis indicated activation of an approximately 21 kDa G-protein in HCs after exposure to gentamicin. Spectroscopic analysis of peptide fragments from this band matched its sequence with H-Ras. The Ras inhibitors B581 (50 microM) and FTI-277 (10 microM) provided potent protection against damage and reduced c-Jun activation in HC nuclei, suggesting that activation of Ras is functionally involved in damage to these cells due to gentamicin.