We have examined the phosphorylation and protein kinase activity of p44 mitogen-activated protein kinase (p44mapk) in growth factor-stimulated hamster fibroblasts using a specific antiserum. The activity of p44mapk was stimulated both by receptor tyrosine kinases and G protein-coupled receptors. Detailed kinetics revealed that alpha-thrombin induces a biphasic activation of p44mapk in CCL39 cells: a rapid phase appearing at 5-10 min was followed by a late and sustained phase still elevated after 4 h. Inactivation of alpha-thrombin with hirudin after 30 sec, which prevented DNA synthesis, did not alter the early p44mapk response but completely abolished the late phase. Pretreatment of the cells with pertussis toxin, which inhibits by more than 95% alpha-thrombin-induced mitogenicity, resulted in the complete loss of late phase activity, while the early peak was partially attenuated. Treatment of CCL39 cells with basic fibroblast growth factor also induced a strong activation of p44mapk. Serotonin, which is not a mitogen by its own, had no effect on late phase p44mapk activity, but synergized with basic fibroblast growth factor to induce late kinase response and DNA synthesis. Both early and late phase activation of p44mapk were accompanied by tyrosine phosphorylation of the enzyme. Together, the results indicate that there is a very close correlation between the ability of a growth factor to induce late and sustained p44mapk activation and its mitogenic potential. Therefore, we propose that sustained p44mapk activation is an obligatory event for growth factor-induced cell cycle progression.