Mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinases comprise an evolutionarily conserved family of proteins that includes at least three vertebrate protein kinases (p42, p44, and p55 MAPK) and five yeast protein kinases (SPK1, MPK1, HOG1, FUS3, and KSS1). Members of this family are activated by a variety of extracellular agents that influence cellular proliferation and differentiation. In Saccharomyces cerevisiae, there are multiple physiologically distinct MAP kinase activation pathways composed of structurally related kinases. The recently cloned vertebrate MAP kinase activators are structurally related to MAP kinase activators in these yeast pathways. These similarities suggest that homologous kinase cascades are utilized for signal transduction in many, if not all, eukaryotes. We have identified additional members of the MAP kinase activator family in Xenopus laevis by a polymerase chain reaction-based analysis of embryonic cDNAs. One of the clones identified (XMEK2) encodes a unique predicted protein kinase that is similar to the previously reported activator (MAPKK) in X. laevis. XMEK2, a highly expressed maternal mRNA, is developmentally regulated during embryogenesis and expressed in brain and muscle. Expression of XMEK2 in yeast cells suppressed the growth defect associated with loss of the yeast MAP kinase activator homologs, MKK1 and MKK2. Partial sequence of a second cDNA clone (XMEK3) identified yet another potential MAP kinase activator. The pattern of expression of XMEK3 is distinct from that of p42 MAPK and XMEK2. The high degree of amino acid sequence similarity of XMEK2, XMEK3, and MAPKK suggests that these three are related members of an amphibian family of protein kinases involved in the activation of MAP kinase. Discovery of this family suggests that multiple MAP kinase activation pathways similar to those in yeast cells exist in vertebrates.