Within the last 15 years, multiple new signal transduction pathways within cells have been discovered. Many of these pathways belong to what is now termed 'the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) superfamily.' These pathways have been linked to the growth factor-mediated regulation of diverse cellular events such as proliferation, senescence, differentiation and apoptosis. Based on currently available data, exposure of cells to ionizing radiation and a variety of other toxic stresses induces simultaneous compensatory activation of multiple MAPK pathways. These signals play critical roles in controlling cell survival and repopulation effects following irradiation, in a cell-type-dependent manner. Some of the signaling pathways activated following radiation exposure are those normally activated by mitogens, such as the 'classical' MAPK (also known as the ERK) pathway. Other MAPK pathways activated by radiation include those downstream of death receptors and procaspases, and DNA-damage signals, including the JNK and P38 MAPK pathways. The expression and release of autocrine growth factor ligands, such as (transforming growth factor alpha) and TNF-alpha, following irradiation can also enhance the responses of MAPK pathways in cells and, consequently, of bystander cells. Thus, the ability of radiation to activate MAPK signaling pathways may depend on the expression of multiple growth factor receptors, autocrine factors and Ras mutation. Enhanced basal signaling by proto-oncogenes such as K-/H-/N-RAS may provide a radioprotective and growth-promoting signal. In many cell types, this may be via the PI3K pathway; in others, this may occur through nuclear factor-kappa B or multiple MAPK pathways. This review will describe the enzymes within the known MAPK signaling pathways and discuss their activation and roles in cellular radiation responses.