Treatment of PC12 cells with either nerve growth factor (NGF), a differentiating factor, or epidermal growth factor (EGF), a mitogen, resulted in 7-15-fold activation of a protein kinase activity in cell extracts that phosphorylated microtubule-associated protein (MAP) 2 on serine and threonine residues in vitro. Both the NGF-activated kinase and the EGF-activated kinase could be partially purified by sequential chromatography on DEAE-cellulose, phenyl-Sepharose and hydroxylapatite, and were identical with each other in their chromatographic behavior, apparent molecular mass (approximately 40 kDa) on gel filtration, substrate specificity, and phosphopeptide-mapping pattern of MAP2 phosphorylated by each kinase. Moreover, both kinases were found to be indistinguishable from a mitogen-activated MAP kinase previously described in growth-factor-stimulated or phorbol-ester-stimulated fibroblastic cells, based on the same criteria. Kinase assays in gels after SDS/polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis revealed further that the NGF- or EGF-activated MAP kinase in PC12 cells, as well as the EGF-activated MAP kinase in fibroblastic 3Y1 cells resided in two closely spaced polypeptides with an apparent molecular mass of approximately 40 kDa. In addition, these MAP kinases were inactivated by either acid phosphatase treatment or protein phosphatase 2A treatment. These results indicate that MAP kinase may be activated through phosphorylation by a differentiating factor as well as by a mitogen. MAP kinase activation by EGF was protein kinase C independent; it reached an almost maximal level 1 min after EGF treatment and subsided rapidly within 30-60 min. On the other hand, NGF-induced activation of MAP kinase was partly protein kinase C dependent and continued for at least 2-3 h.