Mitogen activated protein kinases (MAP) or extracellular signal regulated protein kinases (ERK) are a family of protein serine/threonine kinases that are activated very rapidly in response to many extracellular stimuli. elk-1, an ets related gene codes for two transcriptional factors elk-1, which regulates c-fos transcription and delta elk-1, both of which are substrates for MAP kinases. A part of the C-terminal transcriptional activation domain (ETA-2) which is common to both the proteins was previously shown to function as an activator of MAP kinases. In this report, in an attempt to investigate the mechanism of activation of MAP kinases, purified preparations of recombinant elk-1 and P44mpk/ERK-1/ERK-2 proteins were used to show the association of elk-1 proteins with MAP kinases. The specific interactions of elk-1 proteins with MAP kinases were confirmed by co-immunoprecipitation studies. Thus elk-1 proteins appear to regulate the activity of MAP kinases by interacting with them ensuring a conformational change and stimulating their autophosphorylation and activation property. The activation was dependent on the presence of ATP and Mg2+. In vitro phosphorylation of elk-1 protein was not regulatory for autonomous DNA binding activity of elk-1 protein. Cells which were exposed to EGF showed a rapid stimulation of an elk-1 specific kinase activity, probably MAP kinase which phosphorylated MBP and was found to be associated with immobilized GST-elk-1. Furthermore, dephosphorylation studies indicate that elk-1 proteins can activate only tyrosine phosphorylated MAP kinase. These results demonstrate the presence of an alternative pathway/mechanism (other than MAP kinase kinase, MAPKK/Mek) for the activation of MAP kinases with tyrosine phosphorylation occurring before serine/threonine autophosphorylation and activation by elk-1 proteins.