Protein kinase C zeta (zeta PKC) is critically involved in the control of a number of cell functions, including proliferation and nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kappa B) activation. Previous studies indicate that zeta PKC is an important step downstream of Ras in the mitogenic cascade. The stimulation of Ras initiates a kinase cascade that culminates in the activation of MAP kinase (MAPK), which is required for cell growth. MAPK is activated by phosphorylation by another kinase named MAPK kinase (MEK), which is the substrate of a number of Ras-activated serine/threonine kinases such as c-Raf-1 and B-Raf. We show here that MAPK and MEK are activated in vivo by an active mutant of zeta PKC, and that a kinase-defective dominant negative mutant of zeta PKC dramatically impairs the activation of both MEK and MAPK by serum and tumour necrosis factor (TNF alpha). The stimulation of other kinases, such as stress-activated protein kinase (SAPK) or p70S6K, is shown here to be independent of zeta PKC. The importance of MEK/MAPK in the signalling mechanisms activated by zeta PKC was addressed by using the activation of a kappa B-dependent promoter as a biological read-out of zeta PKC.