We have cloned a novel gene mirk (minibrain-related kinase) encoding a protein kinase that enables colon carcinoma cells to survive under certain stress conditions. Mirk is a mitogen-activated protein kinase substrate but is down-regulated by activated extracellular signal-regulated kinases (erks) in vivo. Mirk contains a PEST region characteristic of rapidly turned over proteins and is broken down to a Mr 57,000 form only in the nucleus. In each of three colon carcinoma cell lines, mirk levels were increased 20-fold when erk activation was blocked by the MEK inhibitor PD98059 in serum-free medium. Addition of IGF-I to activate erks blocked this increase. Mirk was stably overexpressed in two colon carcinoma cell lines to attain levels seen in colon cancers. Each of five mirk transfectants proliferated when switched to serum-free medium and regained rapid growth when serum was restored, whereas five vector control transfectants and three kinase-dead mutant mirk transfectants did not. mirk mRNA levels were elevated in several types of carcinomas, and mirk protein was detected in each of seven colon carcinoma cell lines. mirk was expressed at a higher protein level in Western blots from three of eight colon cancers compared with paired normal colon tissue, suggesting that mirk plays a role in the evolution of a subset of colon cancers. mirk is not mutated in colon carcinomas. Mirk may mediate tumor cell survival in mitogen-poor environments or early in colon cancer development before many autocrine growth factors have been induced.