Background Signal transduction pathways are usually modelled using classical quantitative methods, which are based on ordinary differential equations (ODEs). However, some difficulties are inherent in this approach. On the one hand, the kinetic parameters involved are often unknown and have to be estimated. With increasing size and complexity of signal transduction pathways, the estimation of missing kinetic data is not possible. On the other hand, ODEs based models do not support any explicit insights into possible (signal-) flows within the network. Moreover, a huge amount of qualitative data is available due to high-throughput techniques. In order to get information on the systems behaviour, qualitative analysis techniques have been developed. Applications of the known qualitative analysis methods concern mainly metabolic networks. Petri net theory provides a variety of established analysis techniques, which are also applicable to signal transduction models. In this context special properties have to be considered and new dedicated techniques have to be designed. Methods We apply Petri net theory to model and analyse signal transduction pathways first qualitatively before continuing with quantitative analyses. This paper demonstrates how to build systematically a discrete model, which reflects provably the qualitative biological behaviour without any knowledge of kinetic parameters. The mating pheromone response pathway in Saccharomyces cerevisiae serves as case study. Results We propose an approach for model validation of signal transduction pathways based on the network structure only. For this purpose, we introduce the new notion of feasible t-invariants, which represent minimal self-contained subnets being active under a given input situation. Each of these subnets stands for a signal flow in the system. We define maximal common transition sets (MCT-sets), which can be used for t-invariant examination and net decomposition into smallest biologically meaningful functional units. Conclusion The paper demonstrates how Petri net analysis techniques can promote a deeper understanding of signal transduction pathways. The new concepts of feasible t-invariants and MCT-sets have been proven to be useful for model validation and the interpretation of the biological system behaviour. Whereas MCT-sets provide a decomposition of the net into disjunctive subnets, feasible t-invariants describe subnets, which generally overlap. This work contributes to qualitative modelling and to the analysis of large biological networks by their fully automatic decomposition into biologically meaningful modules.