The activating transcription factor 2 (ATF2) is a member of the ATF/cAMP-response element-binding protein family of basic-leucine zipper proteins involved in cellular stress response. The transcription potential of ATF2 is enhanced markedly by NH2-terminal phosphorylation by c-Jun NH2-terminal kinase (JNK) and mediates stress responses including DNA-damaging events. We have observed that four DNA-damaging agents (cisplatin, actinomycin D, MMS, and etoposide), but not the cisplatin isomer, transplatin, which does not readily damage DNA, strongly activate JNK, p38, and extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK), and strongly increase phosphorylation and ATF2-dependent transcriptional activity. Selective inhibition studies with PD98059, SB202190, SP600125, and the dominant negative JNK indicate that activation of JNK but not p38 kinase or ERK kinase is required for the phosphorylation and transcriptional activation of ATF2. Stable expression of ATF2 in human breast carcinoma BT474 cells increases transcriptional activity and confers resistance to the four DNA-damaging agents, but not to transplatin. Conversely, stable expression of a dominant negative ATF2 (dnATF2) quantitatively blocks phosphorylation of endogenous ATF2 leading to a marked decrease in transcriptional activity by endogenous ATF2 and a markedly increased sensitivity to the four agents as judged by decreased cell viability. Similarly, application of SB202190 at 50 micro m or SP600125 inhibited JNK activity, blocked transactivation, and sensitized parental cells to the four DNA-damaging drugs. Moreover, the wild type ATF2-expressing clones exhibited rapid DNA repair after treatment with the four DNA-damaging agents but not transplatin. Conversely, expression of dnATF2 quantitatively blocks DNA repair. These results indicate that JNK-dependent phosphorylation of ATF2 plays an important role in the drug resistance phenotype likely by mediating enhanced DNA repair by a p53-independent mechanism. JNK may be a rational target for sensitizing tumor cells to DNA-damaging chemotherapy agents.