c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) contributes to metalloproteinase (MMP) gene expression and joint destruction in inflammatory arthritis. It is phosphorylated by at least two upstream kinases, the mitogen-activated protein kinase kinases (MEK) MKK4 and MKK7, which are, in turn, phosphorylated by MEK kinases (MEKKs). However, the MEKKs that are most relevant to JNK activation in synoviocytes have not been determined. These studies were designed to assess the hierarchy of upstream MEKKs, MEKK1, MEKK2, MEKK3, and transforming growth factor-beta activated kinase (TAK)1, in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Using either small interfering RNA (siRNA) knockdown or knockout fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLSs), MEKK1, MEKK2, or MEKK3 deficiency (either alone or in combination) had no effect on IL-1beta-stimulated phospho-JNK (P-JNK) induction or MMP expression. However, TAK1 deficiency significantly decreased P-JNK, P-MKK4 and P-MKK7 induction compared with scrambled control. TAK1 knockdown did not affect p38 activation. Kinase assays showed that TAK1 siRNA significantly suppressed JNK kinase function. In addition, MKK4 and MKK7 kinase activity were significantly decreased in TAK1 deficient FLSs. Electrophoretic mobility shift assays demonstrated a significant decrease in IL-1beta induced AP-1 activation due to TAK1 knockdown. Quantitative PCR showed that TAK1 deficiency significantly decreased IL-1beta-induced MMP3 gene expression and IL-6 protein expression. These results show that TAK1 is a critical pathway for IL-1beta-induced activation of JNK and JNK-regulated gene expression in FLSs. In contrast to other cell lineages, MEKK1, MEKK2, and MEKK3 did not contribute to JNK phosphorylation in FLSs. The data identify TAK1 as a pivotal upstream kinase and potential therapeutic target to modulate synoviocyte activation in RA.