Cyclin-dependent kinase 5 (cdk5) is found in an active form only in neuronal cells. Activation by virtue of association with the cyclin-like neuronal proteins p35 (or its truncated form p25) and p39 is the only mechanism currently shown to regulate cdk5 catalytic activity. In addition to cyclin binding, other members of the cdk family require for maximal activation phosphorylation of a Ser/Thr residue (Thr(160) in the case of cdk-2) that is conserved in all cdks except cdk8. This site is phosphorylated by cdk-activating kinases, which, however, do not phosphorylate cdk5. To examine the possible existence of a phosphorylation-dependent regulatory mechanism in the case of cdk5, we have metabolically labeled PC12 cells with (32)P(i) and shown that the endogenous cdk5 is phosphorylated. Bacterially expressed cdk5 also can be phosphorylated by PC12 cell lysates. Phosphorylation of cdk5 by a PC12 cell lysate results in a significant increase in cdk5/p25 catalytic activity. Ser(159) in cdk5 is homologous to the regulatory Thr(160) in cdk2. A Ser(159)-to-Ala (S159A) cdk5 mutant did not show similar activation, which suggests that cdk5 is also regulated by phosphorylation at this site. Like other members of the cdk family, cdk5 catalytic activity is influenced by both p25 binding and phosphorylation. We show that the cdk5-activating kinase (cdk5AK) is distinct from the cdk-activating kinase (cyclin H/cdk7) that was reported previously to neither phosphorylate cdk5 nor affect its activity. We also show that casein kinase I, but not casein kinase II, can phosphorylate and activate cdk5 in vitro.