The major regulators of the c-jun promoter are ATF-2 and c-Jun. They act as pre-bound heterodimers on two 'AP-1-like' sites, and are preferentially addressed by different types of extracellular signals. The transactivating potential of ATF-2 is stimulated to a higher extent than that of c-Jun by a broad group of agents causing DNA damage and other types of cellular stress, such as short-wavelength UV, or the alkylating compounds N-methyl-N'-nitro-N-nitroso-guanidine (MNNG) or methylmethanesulphonate (MMS). In contrast, treatment with the phorbol ester TPA preferentially enhances c-Jun-dependent transactivation but does not affect ATF-2. Accordingly, UV and MMS but not TPA induce c-jun transcription in F9 cells, which express ATF-2, but not c-Jun. Stimulation of ATF-2-dependent transactivation by genotoxic agents requires the presence of threonines 69 and 71 located in the N-terminal transactivation domain. These sites are the target of p54 and p46 stress-activated protein kinases (SAPKs) which bind to, and phosphorylate ATF-2 in vitro. However, p46 and p54 kinase activity is not increased by phorbol ester, which strongly suggests that the protein kinase phosphorylating c-Jun in response to TPA is distinct from SAPKs and does not act on ATF-2. Our data demonstrate that distinct signal transduction pathways converge at c-Jun/ATF-2, whereby each subunit is individually addressed by a specific class of protein kinases. This allows fine tuned modulation of c-jun expression by a large spectrum of extracellular signals.