Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) signal transduction is a complex process involving activation of receptor-linked and stress-sensitive signaling cascades that stimulate apoptosis in some tumor cell lines. Initial studies suggested that these signaling events cooperatively induced TNF responses, but recent studies suggest that some of these signals antagonize the apoptotic response or play no discernible role in cell death. As TNF induces cellular stress and activates several stress-sensitive cascades that may play a role in apoptosis, TNF-induced stress signaling was examined in MCF-7 cells and compared with a variant MCF-7 cell line resistant to TNF-mediated apoptosis (MCF-7/3E9). TNF rapidly stimulated both NF-kappaB and JNK activation in MCF-7 and MCF-7/3E9 cells, but JNK activation was significantly reduced (threefold) in apoptotically resistant cells. TNF also stimulated p53, p21WAF1, and Bax accumulation with subsequent PARP cleavage and nucleosomal DNA laddering in MCF-7 cells but did not stimulate these processes in MCF-7/3E9 cells. Importantly, 3E9 cells retained wild-type p53 function, induced p21WAF1 in response to DNA damage, and expressed almost equal sensitivity to other stress stimuli (gamma-radiation, chemotherapeutic agents) as parental MCF-7 cells. These results suggest that selective defects in TNF-activated stress cascades are associated with reduced sensitivity to TNF but not other cell death stimuli. Loss of potent TNF-mediated activation of JNK and p53 cascades may permit tumor cells to evade receptor-mediated apoptosis but have only limited influence on cellular sensitivity to other agents that effectively engage these stress pathways.