The cDNA encoding Pfmap-2, an enzyme of the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, was cloned, sequenced, and expressed in Escherichia coli. The open reading frame carried by the Pfmap-2 cDNA encodes a 508-amino acid polypeptide of 59.2 kDa with maximal homology to mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) from various organisms. The purified recombinant enzyme displayed functional characteristics of MAPKs such as (i) ability to undergo autophosphorylation, (ii) ability to phosphorylate myelin basic protein, a classical MAPK substrate, (iii) regulation of kinase activity by a MAPK-specific phosphatase, and (iv) ability to be activated by component(s) present in cell extracts. Mutational analysis of the recombinant protein allowed the identification of residues that are important for enzymatic activity. Northern blot analysis and immunofluorescence assays indicated that Pfmap-2 is expressed specifically in gametocytes, the form that is responsible for transmission of the parasite to the mosquito vector. Gametocyte extracts activated recombinant Pfmap-2 more efficiently than extracts from asexual parasites, which is consistent with this stage specificity. Despite its overall high level of homology to MAPKs, Pfmap-2 presents the peculiarity of not possessing the conserved threonine-X-tyrosine activation motif usually found in enzymes of this family; instead, it has a threonine-serine-histidine at the same location. This atypical feature formed the basis for a detailed analysis of the primary structure of MAPKs, allowing us to define an operational MAPK signature, which is shared by Pfmap-2. The fact that no MAPK from vertebrates diverge in the activation motif suggests that the fine mechanisms of Pfmap-2 regulation may offer an opportunity for antimalarial drug targeting.