JNK3 alpha 1 is predominantly a neuronal specific MAP kinase that is believed to require, like all MAP kinases, both threonine and tyrosine phosphorylation for maximal enzyme activity. In this study we investigated the in vitro activation of JNK3 alpha 1 by MAP kinase kinase 4 (MKK4), MAP kinase kinase 7 (MKK7), and the combination of MKK4 + MKK7. Mass spectral analysis showed that MKK7 was capable of monophosphorylating JNK3 alpha 1 in vitro, whereas both MKK4 and MKK7 were required for bisphosphorylation and maximal enzyme activity. Measuring catalysis under Vmax conditions showed MKK4 + MKK7-activated JNK3 alpha 1 had Vmax 715-fold greater than nonactivated JNK3 alpha 1 and MKK7-activated JNK3 alpha 1 had Vmax 250-fold greater than nonactivated JNK3 alpha 1. In contrast, MKK4-activated JNK3 alpha 1 had no increase in Vmax compared to nonactivated levels and had no phosphorylation on the basis of mass spectrometry. These data suggest that MKK7 was largely responsible for JNK3 alpha 1 activation and that a single threonine phosphorylation may be all that is needed for JNK3 alpha 1 to be active. The steady-state rate constants kcat, Km(GST-ATF2++), and Km(ATP) for both monophosphorylated and bisphosphorylated JNK3 alpha 1 were within 2-fold between the two enzyme forms, suggesting the addition of tyrosine phosphorylation does not affect the binding of ATF2, ATP, or maximal turnover. Finally, the MAP kinase inhibitor, SB203580, had an IC50 value approximately 4-fold more potent on the monophosphorylated JNK3 alpha 1 compared to the bisphosphorylated JNK3 alpha 1, suggesting only a modest effect of tyrosine phosphorylation on inhibitor binding.