We investigated the function of c-Jun in PC12 cells by transfecting them with a plasmid containing a c-Jun cDNA transcription cassette. Transfected cells expressed high levels of c-Jun mRNA and protein and demonstrated an increase in both AP-1 DNA binding and gene activation. The c-Jun over-expressing cells showed marked neurite outgrowth but no evidence of spontaneous cell death. In fact, c-Jun over-expressing cells were more resistant to okadaic acid-induced apoptosis. The process outgrowth was not indicative of a full neuronal differentiation response as the transfected PC12 cells did not display action potentials when examined with whole-cell patch-clamping. The phosphorylation of c-Jun on serine 73 appears to be important for this neurite sprouting effect as mutagenesis at this site reduced sprouting whereas a serine 63 mutant tended to increase sprouting. Thus, in PC12 cells c-Jun expression does not induce apoptosis, but rather functions as a neurite outgrowth and neuronal survival signal.