Two families of protein kinases that are closely related to Ste20 in their kinase domain have been identified - the p21-activated protein kinase (Pak) and SPS1 families [1-3]. In contrast to Pak family members, SPS1 family members do not bind and are not activated by GTP-bound p21Rac and Cdc42. We recently placed a member of the SPS1 family, called Misshapen (Msn), genetically upstream of the c-Jun amino-terminal (JNK) mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase module in Drosophila . The failure to activate JNK in Drosophila leads to embryonic lethality due to the failure of these embryos to stimulate dorsal closure [5-8]. Msn probably functions as a MAP kinase kinase kinase kinase in Drosophila, activating the JNK pathway via an, as yet, undefined MAP kinase kinase kinase. We have identified a Drosophila TNF-receptor-associated factor, DTRAF1, by screening for Msn-interacting proteins using the yeast two-hybrid system. In contrast to the mammalian TRAFs that have been shown to activate JNK, DTRAF1 lacks an amino-terminal 'Ring-finger' domain, and overexpression of a truncated DTRAF1, consisting of only its TRAF domain, activates JNK. We also identified another DTRAF, DTRAF2, that contains an amino-terminal Ring-finger domain. Msn specifically binds the TRAF domain of DTRAF1 but not that of DTRAF2. In Drosophila, DTRAF1 is thus a good candidate for an upstream molecule that regulates the JNK pathway by interacting with, and activating, Msn. Consistent with this idea, expression of a dominant-negative Msn mutant protein blocks the activation of JNK by DTRAF1. Furthermore, coexpression of Msn with DTRAF1 leads to the synergistic activation of JNK. We have extended some of these observations to the mammalian homolog of Msn, Nck-interacting kinase (NIK), suggesting that TRAFs also play a critical role in regulating Ste20 kinases in mammals.