We characterized participation of the stress-activated protein kinase (SAPK) cascade in the lethal actions of the cytotoxic lipid messengers ceramide and sphingosine in U937 human monoblastic leukemia cells. Acute exposure of U937 cells to either lipid resulted in loss of proliferative capacity, degradation of genomic DNA, and manifestation of apoptotic cytoarchitecture. Ceramide robustly stimulated p46-JNK1/p54-JNK2 activity and increased expression of c-jun mRNA and c-Jun protein; in contrast, sphingosine moderately stimulated p46-JNK1/p54JNK2 and failed to modify C- jun/c-Jun expression. Dominant-negative blockade of normal c-Jun activity by transfection with the TAM-67 c-Jun NH2-terminal deletion mutant abolished the lethal actions of ceramide but was without effect on those of sphingosine, indicating that ceramide-related apoptosis is directly dependent on activation of C-Jun, whereas sphingosine-induced cell death proceeds via an unrelated downstream mechanism. Characterization of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) cascade in these responses revealed a further functional disparity between the two lipids: basal p42-ERK1/p44-ERK2 activity was gradually reduced by ceramide but immediately and completely suppressed by sphingosine. Moreover, blockade of the MAPK cascade by the aminomethoxyflavone MEK1 inhibitor PD-98059 unexpectedly activated p46JNK1/p54-JNK2 and induced apoptosis in a manner qualitatively resembling that of sphingosine. Both lipids sharply increased p38-RK activity; selective pharmacological inhibition of p38-RK by the pyridinyl imidazole SB-203580 failed to mitigate the cytotoxicity associated with either ceramide or sphingosine, suggesting that p38-RK is not essential for lipid-induced apoptosis. These findings demonstrate that reciprocal alterations in the SAPK and MAPK cascades are associated with the apoptotic influence of either lipid inasmuch as (i) ceramide-mediated lethality is primarily associated with strong stimulation of SAPK and weak inhibition of MAPK, whereas (ii) sphingosine-mediated lethality is primarily associated with weak stimulation of SAPK and strong inhibition of MAPK. We therefore propose that leukemic cell survival depends on the maintenance of an imbalance of the outputs from the MAPK and SAPK systems such that the dominant basal influence of the MAPK cascade allows sustained proliferation, whereas acute redirection of this balance toward the SAPK cascade initiates apoptotic cell death.