Mixed lineage kinase-3 (MLK-3) is a 97 kDa serine/threonine kinase with multiple interaction domains, including a Cdc42 binding motif, but unknown function. Cdc42 and the related small GTP binding protein Rac1 can activate the SAPK/JNK and p38/RK stress-responsive kinase cascades, suggesting that MLK-3 may have a role in upstream regulation of these pathways. In support of this role, we demonstrate that MLK-3 can specifically activate the SAPK/JNK and p38/RK pathways, but has no effect on the activation of ERKs. Immunoprecipitated MLK-3 catalyzed the phosphorylation of SEK1 in vitro, and co-transfected MLK-3 induced phosphorylation of SEK1 and MKK3 at sites required for activation, suggesting direct regulation of these protein kinases. Furthermore, interactions between MLK-3 and SEK and MLK-3 and MKK6 were observed in co-precipitation experiments. Finally, kinase-dead mutants of MLK-3 blocked activation of the SAPK pathway by a newly identified mammalian analog of Ste20, germinal center kinase, but not by MEKK, suggesting that MLK-3 functions to activate the SAPK/JNK and p38/RK cascades in response to stimuli transduced by Ste20-like kinases.