Signal-induced nuclear expression of the eukaryotic NF-kappaB transcription factor involves the stimulatory action of select mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase kinases on the IkappaB kinases (IKKalpha and IKKbeta) which reside in a macromolecular signaling complex termed the signalsome. While genetic studies indicate that IKKbeta is the principal kinase involved in proinflammatory cytokine-induced IkappaB phosphorylation, the function of the equivalently expressed IKKalpha is less clear. Here we demonstrate that assembly of IKKalpha with IKKbeta in the heterodimeric signalsome serves two important functions: (i) in unstimulated cells, IKKalpha inhibits the constitutive IkappaB kinase activity of IKKbeta; (ii) in activated cells, IKKalpha kinase activity is required for the induction of IKKbeta. The introduction of kinase-inactive IKKalpha, activation loop mutants of IKKalpha, or IKKalpha antisense RNA into 293 or HeLa cells blocks NIK (NF-kappaB-inducing kinase)-induced phosphorylation of the IKKbeta activation loop occurring in functional signalsomes. In contrast, catalytically inactive mutants of IKKbeta do not block NIK-mediated phosphorylation of IKKalpha in these macromolecular signaling complexes. This requirement for kinase-proficient IKKalpha to activate IKKbeta in heterodimeric IKK signalsomes is also observed with other NF-kappaB inducers, including tumor necrosis factor alpha, human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 Tax, Cot, and MEKK1. Conversely, the theta isoform of protein kinase C, which also induces NF-kappaB/Rel, directly targets IKKbeta for phosphorylation and activation, possibly acting through homodimeric IKKbeta complexes. Together, our findings indicate that activation of the heterodimeric IKK complex by a variety of different inducers proceeds in a directional manner and is dependent on the kinase activity of IKKalpha to activate IKKbeta.