Eukaryotic cells respond to different extracellular stimuli by recruiting homologous signalling pathways that use members of the MEKK, MEK and ERK families of protein kinases. The MEKK-->MEK-->ERK core pathways of Saccharomyces cerevisiae may themselves be regulated by members of the STE20 family of protein kinases. Here we report specific activation of the mammalian stress-activated protein kinase (SAPK) pathway by germinal centre kinase (GCK), a human STE20 homologue. SAPKs, members of the ERK family, are activated in situ by inflammatory stimuli, including tumour-necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin-1, and phosphorylate and probably stimulate the transactivation function of c-Jun. Although GCK is found in many tissues, its expression in lymphoid follicles is restricted to the cells of the germinal centre, where it may participate in B-cell differentiation. Activation of the SAPK pathway by GCK illustrates further the striking conservation of eukaryotic signalling mechanisms and defines the first physiological function of a mammalian Ste20.