Induction of the human c-fos proto-oncogene by mitogens depends on the formation of a ternary complex by p62TCF with the serum response factor (SRF) and the serum response element (SRE). We demonstrate that Elk-1, a protein closely related to p62TCF in function, is a nuclear target of two members of the MAP kinase family, ERK1 and ERK2. Phosphorylation of Elk-1 increases the yield of ternary complex in vitro. At least five residues in the C-terminal domain of Elk-1 are phosphorylated upon growth factor stimulation of NIH3T3 cells. These residues are also phosphorylated by purified ERK1 in vitro, as determined by a combination of phosphopeptide sequencing and 2-D peptide mapping. Conversion of two of these phospho-acceptor sites to alanine impairs the formation of ternary complexes by the resulting Elk-1 proteins. Removal of these serine residues also drastically diminishes activation of the c-fos promoter in epidermal growth factor-treated cells. Analogous mutations at other sites impair activation to a lesser extent without affecting ternary complex formation in vitro. Our results indicate that phosphorylation regulates ternary complex formation by Elk-1, which is a prerequisite for the manifestation of its transactivation potential at the c-fos SRE.