The urokinase-type plasminogen activator contributes to tissue remodeling by controlling the synthesis of the extracellular matrix-degrading plasmin. We undertook a study to determine the role of the extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERKs) in the regulation of urokinase-type plasminogen activator expression in a squamous cell carcinoma cell line (UM-SCC-1) that contains a transcriptionally activated urokinase-type plasminogen activator gene. Transient transfection studies using a CAT reporter driven by the urokinase-type plasminogen activator promoter, which had progressive 5' deletions or which had been point-mutated, indicated the requirement of binding sites for AP-1 (-1967) and PEA3 (-1973) for its maximal activation. Expression of a mutant jun protein, which lacks the transactivation domain, caused a dose-dependent repression of a CAT reporter driven by either the urokinase-type plasminogen activator promoter or three tandem AP-1 repeats upstream of a thymidine kinase minimal promoter indicating the importance of AP-1-binding transcription factor(s) in the regulation of urokinase-type plasminogen activator synthesis. Mobility shift assays with UM-SCC-1 nuclear extract revealed binding of fos and junD proteins to an oligonucleotide spanning the AP-1 site at -1967. In-gel kinase assays indicated the constitutive activation of ERK1, which regulates fos synthesis via phosphorylation of p62TCF, but not ERK2, in UM-SCC-1 cells. Moreover, the expression of a dominant-negative ERK1, but not ERK2, repressed urokinase-type plasminogen activator promoter activity. Similarly, interfering with the function of the c-raf serine-threonine kinase, which lies upstream of ERK1, by the expression of a kinase-inactive c-raf repressed the activity of a CAT reporter driven by either the urokinase-type plasminogen activator promotor or tandem AP-1 repeats. These data suggest that urokinase-type plasminogen activator expression in UM-SCC-1 cells is regulated partly by an ERK1, but not ERK2, -dependent signaling pathway.