Mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinases are key elements of the signalling systems needed to transduce different extracellular messages into cellular responses. At least three parallel MAP kinase pathways have been identified: one, stimulated by serum and growth factors to activate extracellular signal-regulated protein kinases (ERKs) by dual tyrosine and threonine phosphorylation, triggers cell proliferation or differentiation; the other two, induced by a variety of cellular stresses to activate c-jun N-terminal kinases (JNKs) and reactivating kinase (p38/RK), result in growth arrest and induction of apoptosis. Mitogen-activated protein kinase phosphatases (MKPs) inactivate MAP kinases through dephosphorylation and, thus, can modulate the MAP kinase pathways. Expression of JNK-1, ERK-1, p38/RK and MKP-1 proteins was investigated by immunohistochemistry and expression of MKP-1 mRNA by in situ hybridisation in 50 cases of high-grade prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia (PIN), thought to represent the precursor of prostate cancer. The frequency of apoptotic cells was also determined in these cases. Overexpression of the three MAP kinases and MKP-1 mRNA was found in all cases of high-grade PIN compared with normal prostate. Immunoreactivity for MKP-1 protein was found to be as intense as in normal glands in 30% and weaker in 56% of the PIN cases. Fourteen per cent of PIN cases did not stain with MKP-1 antibody. The proportion of apoptosis was significantly higher (P < 0.008) in PIN lesions that did not express MKP-1 protein than in those that did. These results are consistent with our previous demonstration of preferential inhibition of the apoptosis-related kinases by MKP-1 and further support the contention that MKP-1, even in PIN, may shift the balance existing between cell proliferation and death. When expressed, it may inhibiting those pathways that lead to apoptosis.