Curcumin, a dietary pigment in curry, suppresses tumor initiation and tumor promotion. Curcumin is also a potent inhibitor for AP-1 and NF-kappaB activation. In this report, we show that curcumin inhibits JNK activation by various agonists including PMA plus ionomycin, anisomycin, UV-C, gamma radiation, TNF-alpha, and sodium orthovanadate. Although both JNK and ERK activation by phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) plus ionomycin were suppressed by curcumin, the JNK pathway was more sensitive. The IC50 (50% inhibition concentration) of curcumin was between 5-10 microM for JNK activation and was 20 microM for ERK activation. In transfection assays, curcumin moderately suppressed MEKK1-induced JNK activation; however, it effectively blocked JNK activation caused by co-transfection of TAK1, GCK, or HPK1. Curcumin did not directly inhibit JNK, SEK1, MEKK1 or HPK1 activity. Although curcumin suppressed TAK1 and GCK activities at high concentrations, this inhibition cannot fully account for the JNK inhibition by curcumin in vivo. Our data suggest that curcumin may affect the JNK pathway by interfering with the signaling molecule(s) at the same level or proximally upstream of the MAPKKK level. Taken together, the inhibition of the MEKK1-JNK pathway reveals a possible mechanism of suppression of AP-1 and NF-kappaB signaling by curcumin, and may explain the potent anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic effects of this chemical.