The inhibitor protein I kappa B alpha controls the nuclear import of the transcription factor NF-kappa B. The inhibitory activity of I kappa B alpha is regulated from the cytoplasmic compartment by signal-induced proteolysis. Previous studies have shown that signal-dependent phosphorylation of serine residues 32 and 36 targets I kappa B alpha to the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway. Here we provide evidence that lysine residues 21 and 22 serve as the primary sites for signal-induced ubiquitination of I kappa B alpha. Conservative Lys-->Arg substitutions at both Lys-21 and Lys-22 produce dominant-negative mutants of I kappa B alpha in vivo. These constitutive inhibitors are appropriately phosphorylated but fail to release NF-kappa B in response to multiple inducers, including viral proteins, cytokines, and agents that mimic antigenic stimulation through the T-cell receptor. Moreover, these Lys-->Arg mutations prevent signal-dependent degradation of I kappa B alpha in vivo and ubiquitin conjugation in vitro. We conclude that site-specific ubiquitination of phosphorylated I kappa B alpha at Lys-21 and/or Lys-22 is an obligatory step in the activation of NF-kappa B.