In many patients without clinical metastases, cancer cells have already escaped from the primary tumor and entered a distant organ. A long-standing question in metastasis research is why some disseminated cancer cells fail to complete steps of metastatic colonization for extended periods of time. Our laboratory identified c-Jun NH(2)-terminal kinase activating kinase 1/mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase 4 (JNKK1/MKK4) as a metastasis suppressor protein in a mouse xenograft model of experimental i.p. ovarian cancer metastasis. In this model, expression of JNKK1/MKK4 via activation of p38 delays formation of >or=1-mm implants and prolongs animal survival. Here, we elucidate the time course of this delay as well as the biological mechanisms underpinning it. Using the Gompertz function to model the net accumulation of experimental omental metastases, we show that MKK4-expressing implants arise, on average, 30 days later than controls. Quantitative real-time PCR shows that MKK4 expression does not have a substantial effect on the number of cancer cells initially adhering to the omentum, and terminal deoxyribonucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end labeling analysis shows that there is no increase in apoptosis in these cells. Instead, immunohistochemical quantitation of cell cycle proteins reveals that MKK4-expressing cells fail to proliferate once they reach the omentum and up-regulate p21, a cell cycle inhibitor. Consistent with the time course data, in vitro kinase assays and in vivo passaging of cell lines derived from macroscopic metastases show that the eventual outgrowth of MKK4-expressing cells is not due to a discrete selection event. Rather, the population of MKK4-expressing cells eventually uniformly adapts to the consequences of up-regulated MKK4 signaling.