The phosphoinositide-3-kinase (PI3K)/Akt signaling pathway plays an important role in cell survival and the development of cancer. Macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) is a critical inflammatory cytokine that was recently associated with tumorigenesis and that potently inhibits apoptosis. This may involve inhibition of p53-dependent genes, but the initiating molecular mechanism of how MIF controls survival/apoptosis is unknown. Here, we show that MIF prevents apoptosis and promotes tumor cell survival by directly activating the Akt pathway. MIF enhanced Akt activity in primary and immortalized fibroblasts (MEF and NIH/3T3), HeLa cervix carcinoma cells and various breast cancer cell lines. Activation was abolished by kinase inhibitors Ly294002 and PP2 and in Src/Yes/Fyn(SYF)(-/-) and CD74(-/-)(MEFs), while being enhanced in CD74-overexpressing MEFs, demonstrating that the MIF-induced Akt pathway encompasses signaling through the MIF receptor CD74 and the upstream kinases Src and PI3K. Akt was activated by exogenous rMIF and autocrine MIF action, as revealed by experiments in MIF(-/-)MEFs and antibody blockade. siRNA knockdown of CSN5/JAB1, a tumor marker and MIF-binding protein, showed that JAB1 controls autocrine MIF-mediated Akt signaling by inhibition of MIF secretion. Akt activation by MIF led to phosphorylation of the proapoptotic proteins BAD and Foxo3a. Apoptosis inhibition by MIF was functionally associated with Akt activation as it was abolished by overexpression of the Akt pathway inhibitor PTEN and occurred independently of p53. This was shown by studying DNA damage-induced apoptosis in fibroblasts, the Fas death pathway in HeLa cells that do not express functional p53, and etoposide-induced apoptosis in breast carcinoma cells expressing mutant p53. Importantly, dependence of breast cancer cell survival on MIF correlated with Akt activation and the PTEN status of these cells. Thus, MIF can directly promote cell survival through activation of the PI3K/Akt pathway and this effect is critical for tumor cell survival.