Tyrosine kinase growth factor receptors activate MAP kinase by a complex mechanism involving the SH2/3 protein Grb2, the exchange protein Sos, and Ras. The GTP-bound Ras protein binds to the Raf kinase and initiates a protein kinase cascade that leads to MAP kinase activation. Three MAP kinase kinase kinases have been described--c-Raf, c-Mos, and Mekk--that phosphorylate and activate Mek, the MAP kinase kinase. Activated Mek phosphorylates and activates MAP kinase. Subsequently, the activated MAP kinase translocates into the nucleus where many of the physiological targets of the MAP kinase signal transduction pathway are located. These substrates include transcription factors that are regulated by MAP kinase phosphorylation (e.g., Elk-1, c-Myc, c-Jun, c-Fos, and C/EBP beta). Thus the MAP kinase pathway represents a significant mechanism of signal transduction by growth factor receptors from the cell surface to the nucleus that results in the regulation of gene expression. Three MAP kinase homologs have been identified in the rat: Erk1, Erk2, and Erk3. Human MAP kinases that are similar to the rat Erk kinases have also been identified by molecular cloning. The human Erk1 protein kinase has been shown to be widely expressed as a 44-kDa protein in many tissues. The human Erk2 protein kinase is a 41-kDa protein that is expressed ubiquitously. In contrast, a human Erk3-related protein kinase has been found to be expressed at a high level only in heart muscle and brain. The loci of these MAP kinase genes are widely distributed within the human genome: erk2 at 22q11.2; erk1 at 16p11.2; and ek3-related at 18q12-21. In the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, five MAP kinase gene homologs have been described: smkl, mpk1, hog1, fus3, and kss1. Together, these kinases are a more diverse group than the human erks that have been identified. Thus the erks are likely to represent only one subgroup of a larger human MAP kinase gene family. A candidate for this extended family of MAP kinases is the c-Jun NH2-terminal kinase (Jnk), which binds to and phosphorylates the transcription factor c-Jun at the activating sites Ser-63 and Ser-73. Evidence is presented here to demonstrate that Jnk is a distant relative of the MAP kinase group that is activated by dual phosphorylation at Tyr and Thr.