Mammary epithelial cells in primary cell culture require both growth factors and specific extracellular matrix (ECM)-attachment for survival. Here we demonstrate for the first time that inhibition of the ECM-induced Erk 1/Erk 2 (p42/44 MAPK) pathway, by PD 98059, leads to apoptosis in these cells. Associated with this cell death is a possible compensatory signalling through the p38 MAP kinase pathway the inhibition of which, by SB 203580, leads to a more rapid onset of apoptosis. This provides evidence for a hitherto undescribed Erk 1/Erk 2 to p38 MAP kinase pathway 'cross-talk' that is essential for the survival of these cells. The cell death associated with inhibition of these two MAP kinase pathways however, occurred in the presence of insulin that activates the classical PI-3 kinase-dependent Akt/PKB survival signals and Akt phosphorylation. Cell death induced by inhibition of the MAP kinase pathways did not affect Akt phosphorylation and may, thus, be independent of PI-3 kinase signalling.