Activation of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs), their upstream activators MAPK kinases (MAPKKs or MEKs) and induction of MKP-1 (CL100/3CH134) and MKP-3 (Pyst1/rVH6) dual-specificity MAPK phosphatases (MKPs) were studied in the mouse embryonic stem cell line P19 during the 7 day induction of neuronal differentiation triggered by aggregation and retinoic acid. ERK (extracellular signal-regulated kinase), but not JNK (c-Jun N-terminal kinase), was found activated with biphasic kinetics: a first transient phase on days 1 and 2, followed by a second activation that was sustained until the appearance of a neuronal phenotype. MEK activation appeared coincident with ERK activation. Cytosolic MKP-3 was induced in parallel to ERK activation, the induction being dependent on ERK activation, as was shown using the MEK-1 inhibitor PD98059. In contrast, nuclear MKP-1 was transiently elevated at 48h, coincident with ERK inactivation and independently of ERK activity. As shown by cell fractionation, activated ERK is translocated to the nucleus. The complementary induction of ERK-specific phosphatases MKP-1 and MKP-3 permits precise and independent control of cytoplasmic and nuclear ERK activity, most probably required to properly induce a complex cellular programme of differentiation.