We report a strategy for regulating the activity of a cytoplasmic signaling molecule, the protein kinase encoded by raf-1. Retroviruses encoding a gene fusion between an oncogenic form of human p74raf-1 and the hormone-binding domain of the human estrogen receptor (hrafER) were constructed. The fusion protein was nontransforming in the absence of estradiol but could be reversibly activated by the addition or removal of estradiol from the growth media. Activation of hrafER was accompanied in C7 3T3 cells by the rapid, protein synthesis-independent activation of both mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase kinase and p42/p44 MAP kinase and by phosphorylation of the resident p74raf-1 protein as demonstrated by decreased electrophoretic mobility. The phosphorylation of p74raf-1 had no effect on the kinase activity of the protein, indicating that mobility shift is an unreliable indicator of p74raf-1 enzymatic activity. Removal of estradiol from the growth media led to a rapid inactivation of the MAP kinase cascade. These results demonstrate that Raf-1 can activate the MAP kinase cascade in vivo, independent of other "upstream" signaling components. Parallel experiments performed with rat1a cells conditionally transformed by hrafER demonstrated activation of MAP kinase kinase in response to estradiol but no subsequent activation of p42/p44 MAP kinases or phosphorylation of p74raf-1. This result suggests that in rat1a cells, p42/p44 MAP kinase activation is not required for Raf-1-mediated oncogenic transformation. Estradiol-dependent activation of p42/p44 MAP kinases and phosphorylation of p74raf-1 was, however, observed in rat1a cells expressing hrafER when the cells were pretreated with okadaic acid. This result suggests that the level of protein phosphatase activity may play a crucial role in the regulation of the MAP kinase cascade. Our results provide the first example of a cytosolic signal transducer being harnessed by fusion to the hormone-binding domain of the estrogen receptor. This conditional system not only will aid the elucidation of the function of Raf-1 but also may be more broadly useful for the construction of conditional forms of other kinases and signaling molecules.