Mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signal transduction cascades play a crucial role in the response to extracellular stimuli in eukaryotes. A number of MAPK family genes have been isolated in plants, but the maize MAPK genes have been little studied. Here, we studied the role of maize MAP kinase 1 (ZmMAPK1) using gene expression, protein subcellular localization, transformation in Arabidopsis, expression patterns of the stress-responsive genes and physiological parameter analysis. Our physiological parameter analysis suggested that over-expression ZmMAPK1 can increase proline content and decrease malondialdehyde content under drought, and prevent chlorophyll loss and the production of scavenger reactive oxygen species under heat stress. The resistance characteristics of the over-expression of ZmMAPK1 were associated with a significant increase in survival rate. These results suggest that ZmMAPK1 plays a positive role in response to drought and heat stress in Arabidopsis, and provide new insights into the mechanisms of action of MAPK in response to abiotic stress in plants.