Cyclin-dependent protein kinase 5 (cdk5), a member of the cdk family, is active mainly in postmitotic cells and plays important roles in neuronal development and migration, neurite outgrowth, and synaptic transmission. In this study we investigated the relationship between cdk5 activity and regulation of the mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase pathway. We report that cdk5 phosphorylates the MAP kinase kinase-1 (MEK1) in vivo as well as the Ras-activated MEK1 in vitro. The phosphorylation of MEK1 by cdk5 resulted in inhibition of MEK1 catalytic activity and the phosphorylation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) 1/2. In p35 (cdk5 activator) -/- mice, which lack appreciable cdk5 activity, we observed an increase in the phosphorylation of NF-M subunit of neurofilament proteins that correlated with an up-regulation of MEK1 and ERK1/2 activity. The activity of a constitutively active MEK1 with threonine 286 mutated to alanine (within a TPXK cdk5 phosphorylation motif in the proline-rich domain) was not affected by cdk5 phosphorylation, suggesting that Thr286 might be the cdk5/p35 phosphorylation-dependent regulatory site. These findings support the hypothesis that cdk5 and the MAP kinase pathway cross-talk in the regulation of neuronal functions. Moreover, these data and the recent studies of Harada et al. (Harada, T., Morooka, T., Ogawa, S., and Nishida, E. (2001) Nat. Cell Biol. 3, 453-459) have prompted us to propose a model for feedback down-regulation of the MAP kinase signal cascade by cdk5 inactivation of MEK1.