Mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAP kinase) cascades transmit and amplify signals involved in cell proliferation as well as cell death. These signal transduction pathways serve as an indicators of the intensity of trafficking induced by various growth factor, steroid hormone, and G protein receptor mediated ligands. Three major MAP kinase pathways exist in human tissues, but the one involving ERK-1 and -2 is most relevant to breast cancer. Peptide growth factors acting through tyrosine kinase containing receptors are the major regulators of ERK-1 and -2. Estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone can act non-genomically via membrane associated receptors to activate MAP kinase as can various other ligands acting through heterotrimeric G protein receptors. Recent studies demonstrate that breast cancers frequently contain an increased proportion of cells with the activated form of MAP kinase. In estrogen receptor positive breast tumors, MAP kinase pathways can exert "cross talk" effects at the level of ER induced transcription as well as at the level of the cell cycle. Estradiol stimulates cell proliferation by mechanisms which involve activation of MAP kinase, either through rapid, non-transcription effects or by increasing growth factor production and consequently MAP kinase. Progesterone and androgens also stimulate MAP kinase through both of these two mechanisms. Strategies used to treat hormone dependent breast cancer appear to result in upregulation of MAP kinase activation. Direct experimental data demonstrate that the pressure of estradiol deprivation results in the upregulation of MAP kinase in breast cancer cells growing in tissue culture and as xenografts. A number of investigators have now studied the expression of activated MAP kinase in human breast cancer tissues by enzymatic assay and by immunohistochemical techniques. Approximately half of breast tumors express more activated MAP kinase than does the surrounding benign tissue. Studies show a trend toward higher MAP kinase activity in primary tumors of node positive than in node negative patients. However, larger numbers of patients must be studied for these results to achieve statistical significance. The up-regulation of MAP kinase activity does not represent mutations of Ras, but appears to result from enhancement of growth factor pathway activation. No data are yet available on the relationship between MAP kinase activation and apoptosis. Additional studies are now needed to determine the precise relationship between MAP kinase activation and tumor proliferation, apoptosis, and degree of invasiveness as well as on disease free and overall survival.