Mixed lineage kinases (MLKs) are MAPKKK members that activate JNK and reportedly lead to cell death. However, the agonist(s) that regulate MLK activity remain unknown. Here, we demonstrate ceramide as the activator of Drosophila MLK (dMLK) and identify ceramide and TNF-alpha as agonists of mammalian MLK3. dMLK and MLK3 are activated by a ceramide analog and bacterial sphingomyelinase in vivo, whereas a low nanomolar concentration of natural ceramide activates them in vitro. Specific inhibition of dMLK and MLK3 significantly attenuates activation of JNK by ceramide in vivo without affecting ceramide-induced p38 or ERK activation. In addition, TNF-alpha also activates MLK3 and evidently leads to JNK activation in vivo. Thus, the ceramide serves as a common agonist of dMLK and MLK3, and MLK3 contributes to JNK activation induced by TNF-alpha.