The estrogen receptor (ER) can be activated as a transcription factor either by binding of cognate estrogenic ligand or, indirectly, by a variety of other extracellular signals. As a first step towards elucidating the mechanism of 'steroid-independent activation' of the ER by the epidermal growth factor (EGF), we have mapped the ER target domain and determined the signaling pathway. We show that the N-terminal transcriptional activation function AF-1, but not the C-terminal AF-2, is necessary for the EGF response. Both the EGF-induced hyperphosphorylation and the transcriptional activation of the unliganded ER depend on a phosphorylatable serine residue at position 118. However, its phosphorylation is not sufficient and, hence, there must be other target domains or proteins which fulfill an additional requirement for EGF signaling through the ER. Using dominant-negative Ras and MAP kinase kinase (MAPK kinase) and constitutively active MAPK kinase mutants, we show that EGF activates the ER by signaling through the MAPK pathway suggesting that MAPK directly phosphorylates the critical serine 118. Our results also imply that the steroid-independent activation of a variety of ER mutants, which arise during the malignant progression of breast tumors, may contribute to tamoxifen resistance.