A group of potential differentiation-associated genes had been identified by microarray analysis as c-Jun/AP-1 target genes essential for epithelial differentiation program. Our previous study showed that c-Jun/AP-1 could bind and activate these gene promoters in vivo using chromatin immunoprecipitation. To further understand how the mitogen-activated protein kinase signaling pathways regulate AP-1 activity and expression of c-Jun target genes, our strategy was based on the use of 12-o-tetradecanoylophorbol-13-acetate (TPA) and pharmacological reagents to induce or block c-Jun expression. The mRNA and protein expression of these genes increased in response to TPA-induced c-Jun/AP-1 expression. Inhibitors of JNK (SP600125) and PKC (GF109203X) mainly blocked expression and phosphorylation of c-Jun, while inhibition of MEK-ERK activity with PD98059 (an inhibitor of MEK) had little effect. Expression of involucrin and keratin 4 in response to TPA was attenuated by pretreatments with GF109203X and SP600125, but not PD98059, suggesting involvement of PKC and JNK in this response. Taken together, these results suggested that differentiation-associated genes were regulated by TPA-induced c-Jun/AP-1 mainly via a PKC/JNK pathway in esophageal cancer cell line KYSE450.