Sphingosine-1-phosphate (SPP) is a novel lipid messenger that has dual function. Intracellularly it regulates proliferation and survival, and extracellularly, it is a ligand for the G protein-coupled receptor Edg-1. Based on peptide sequences obtained from purified rat kidney sphingosine kinase, the enzyme that regulates SPP levels, we report here the cloning, identification, and characterization of the first mammalian sphingosine kinases (murine SPHK1a and SPHK1b). Sequence analysis indicates that these are novel kinases, which are not similar to other known kinases, and that they are evolutionarily conserved. Comparison with Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Caenorhabditis elegans sphingosine kinase sequences shows that several blocks are highly conserved in all of these sequences. One of these blocks contains an invariant, positively charged motif, GGKGK, which may be part of the ATP binding site. From Northern blot analysis of multiple mouse tissues, we observed that expression was highest in adult lung and spleen, with barely detectable levels in skeletal muscle and liver. Human embryonic kidney cells and NIH 3T3 fibroblasts transiently transfected with either sphingosine kinase expression vectors had marked increases (more than 100-fold) in sphingosine kinase activity. The enzyme specifically phosphorylated D-erythro-sphingosine and did not catalyze the phosphorylation of phosphatidylinositol, diacylglycerol, ceramide, D,L-threo-dihydrosphingosine or N, N-dimethylsphingosine. The latter two sphingolipids were competitive inhibitors of sphingosine kinase in the transfected cells as was previously found with the purified rat kidney enzyme. Transfected cells also had a marked increase in mass levels of SPP with a concomitant decrease in levels of sphingosine and, to a lesser extent, in ceramide levels. Our data suggest that sphingosine kinase is a prototypical member of a new class of lipid kinases. Cloning of sphingosine kinase is an important step in corroborating the intracellular role of SPP as a second messenger.