The mouse benign keratinocyte cell line 308 was previously shown to have less AP-1 DNA binding and transactivation ability than its malignant variant 10Gy5. Because elevated AP-1 activity in 10Gy5 appears to be critical for its malignant phenotype, we were interested in examining the molecular mechanisms that regulate activator protein 1 (AP-1) in this system. In both 308 and 10Gy5 cells, c-fos, fra-2, c-jun, jun B, and jun D were capable of binding to an AP-1 DNA binding site as determined by antibody clearance gel mobility shift assays. By western analysis, jun B steady-state nuclear and cytoplasmic protein levels were reduced in 10Gy5 cells as compared with 308 cells and jun B steady-state mRNA levels were similar in the two cell lines. The rate of jun B protein synthesis was decreased in 10Gy5 cells in comparison with 308 cells. Gel mobility shift experiments indicated that AP-1 inhibitory proteins were not present in the cytoplasm of 308 cells. Oxidation-reduction posttranslational modification was not a major mechanism of AP-1 regulation in these cells as shown by 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate-responsive element (TRE) gel mobility shift assay of nuclear protein treated with a reducing agent and by western analysis for ref-1 protein. Overall phosphorylation of AP-1 proteins in 308 and 10Gy5 cells was examined by 32P orthophosphate labeling and immunoprecipitation. A difference in jun B protein overall phosphorylation was observed in the two cell lines. Our experiments suggest that decreased jun B protein levels may be a mechanism that results in elevated AP-1 activity in malignant 10Gy5 cells.