2-Methoxyestradiol, a well-known nonpolar endogenous metabolite of 17beta-estradiol, has been shown to selectively induce apoptosis in a number of cancer cell lines, but not in normal cells. The mechanism of 2-methoxyestradiol-induced apoptosis appears to vary considerably in different cell lines examined. In the present study, we systematically analyzed the mechanisms of 2-methoxyestradiol-induced apoptosis in the estrogen receptor-negative MDA-MB-435s human breast cancer cells. We found that 2-methoxyestradiol induced the activation of JNK, ERK, and p38 MAPKs. 2-methoxyestradiol-induced JNK activation was associated with the induction of apoptosis through the mitochondrial pathways as a result of increased phosphorylation (inactivation) of the anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 and Bcl-xL proteins. In comparison, 2-methoxyestradiol-induced activation of ERK and p38 in these cells was found to have a protective effect against 2-MeO-E(2)-induced apoptosis. Consistent with this observation, the presence of pharmacological inhibitor of ERK or p38 enhanced 2-methoxyestradiol-induced apoptosis. Mechanistically, inhibition of ERK and p38 activity was associated with activation of various caspases and PARP cleavage, and it also stabilized the pro-apoptotic proteins Bax and Bim, thereby preventing them from degradation during 2-methoxyestradiol treatment. These results suggest that ERK and p38 MAPKs may serve as viable targets for the sensitization of human breast cancer cells to 2-methoxyestradiol-induced apoptosis.