Mice lacking the stress-signaling kinase SEK1 die from embryonic day 10.5 (E10.5) to E12.5. Although a defect in liver formation is accompanied with the embryonic lethality of sek1(-/-) mice, the mechanism of the liver defect has remained unknown. In the present study, we first produced a monoclonal antibody specifically recognizing murine hepatoblasts for the analysis of liver development and further investigated genetic interaction ofsek1 with tumor necrosis factor-alpha receptor 1 gene (tnfr1) and protooncogene c-jun, which are also responsible for liver formation and cell apoptosis. The defective liver formation in sek1(-/-) embryos was not protected by additionaltnfr1 mutation, which rescues the embryonic lethality of mice lacking NF-kappaB signaling components. There was a progressive increase in the hepatoblast cell numbers of wild-type embryos from E10.5 to E12.5. Instead, impaired hepatoblast proliferation was observed in sek1(-/-) livers from E10.5, though fetal liver-specific gene expression was normal. The impaired phenotype in sek1(-/-) livers was more severe than in c-jun(-/-) embryos, and sek1(-/-) c-jun(-/-) embryos died more rapidly before E8.5. The hepatoblast proliferation required no hematopoiesis, since liver development was not impaired in AML1(-/-) mice that lack hematopoietic functions. Stimulation of stress-activated protein kinase/c-Jun N-terminal kinase by hepatocyte growth factor was attenuated in sek1(-/-) livers. Thus, SEK1 appears to play a crucial role in hepatoblast proliferation and survival in a manner apparently different from NF-kappaB or c-Jun.