To elucidate signal transduction pathways leading to neuronal differentiation, we have investigated a conditionally immortalized cell line from rat hippocampal neurons (H19-7) that express a temperature sensitive simian virus 40 large T antigen. Treatment of H19-7 cells with the differentiating agent basic fibroblast growth factor at 39 degrees C, the nonpermissive temperature for T function, resulted in the activation of c-Raf-1, MEK, and mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinases (ERK1 and -2). To evaluate the role of Raf-1 in neuronal cell differentiation, we stably transfected H19-7 cells with v-raf or an oncogenic human Raf-1-estrogen receptor fusion gene (deltaRaf-1:ER). deltaRaf-1:ER transfectants in the presence of estradiol for 1 to 2 days expressed a differentiation phenotype only at the nonpermissive temperature. However, extended exposure of the deltaRaf-1:ER transfectants to estradiol or stable expression of the v-raf construct yielded cells that extended processes at the permissive as well as the nonpermissive temperature, suggesting that cells expressing the large T antigen are capable of responding to the Raf differentiation signal. deltaRaf-1:ER, MEK, and MAP kinase activities in the deltaRaf-1:ER cells were elevated constitutively for up to 36 h of estradiol treatment at the permissive temperature. At the nonpermissive temperature, MEK and ERKs were activated to a significantly lesser extent, suggesting that prolonged MAP kinase activation may not be sufficient for differentiation. To test this possibility, H19-7 cells were transfected or microinjected with constitutively activated MEK. The results indicate that prolonged activation of MEK or MAP kinases (ERK1 and -2) is not sufficient for differentiation of H19-7 neuronal cells and raise the possibility that an alternative signaling pathway is required for differentiation of H19-7 cells by Raf.