The stress-activated protein kinases (SAPKs), which are distantly related to the MAP kinases, are the dominant c-Jun amino-terminal protein kinases activated in response to a variety of cellular stresses, including treatment with tumour-necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-beta (refs 1, 2). SAPK phosphorylation of c-Jun probably activates the c-Jun transactivation function. SAPKs are part of a signal transduction cascade related to, but distinct from, the MAPK pathway. We have now identified a novel protein kinase, called SAPK/ERK kinase-1 (SEK1), which is structurally related to the MAP kinase kinases (MEKs). SEK1 is a potent activator of the SAPKs in vitro and in vivo. An inactive SEK1 mutant blocks SAPK activation by extracellular stimuli without interfering with the MAPK pathway. Although alternative mechanisms of SAPK activation may exist, as an immediate upstream activator of the SAPKs, SEK1 further defines a signalling cascade that couples cellular stress agonists to the c-Jun transcription factor.