In human and rodent macrophages, activation of the P2X7 nucleotide receptor stimulates interleukin-1β processing and release, apoptosis, and killing of intracellular Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Signaling pathways downstream of this ionotropic ATP receptor are poorly understood. Here we describe the rapid activation of the stress-activated protein kinase (SAPK)/JNK pathway in BAC1 murine macrophages stimulated by extracellular ATP. Brief exposure of the cells to ATP (10-30 min) was sufficient to trigger a rapid accumulation of activated SAPK that was then sustained for >120 min. Several observations indicated that the P2X7 receptor mediated this effect. 1) ATP and 3'-O-(4-benzoyl-)benzoyl-ATP were the only agonistic nucleotides. 2) The effect was inhibited by oxidized ATP and the isoquinoline KN-62, two known P2X7 receptor antagonists. 3) ATP-induced SAPK activation could be recapitulated in P2X7 receptor-transfected HEK293 cells, but not in wild-type HEK293 cells. Because P2X7 receptor stimulation can rapidly activate caspase family proteases that have been implicated in the induction of the SAPK pathway, we investigated whether ATP-dependent SAPK activation involved such proteases. Brief exposure of BAC1 macrophages to extracellular ATP induced DNA fragmentation, α-fodrin breakdown, and elevated levels of caspase-3-type activity. Asp-Glu-Val-Asp-cho, a caspase-3 inhibitor, inhibited ATP-induced DNA fragmentation and α-fodrin proteolysis, but had no effect on ATP-induced SAPK activation. Tyr-Val-Ala-Asp-chloromethyl ketone, a caspase-1 inhibitor, prevented ATP-induced release of processed interleukin-1β, but not ATP-dependent SAPK activity. We conclude that activation of ionotropic P2X7 nucleotide receptors triggers a strong activation of SAPK via a pathway independent of caspase-1- or caspase-3-like proteases.