Serine/threonine kinase which acts as an essential component of the MAP kinase signal transduction pathway. Plays an important role in the cascades of cellular responses evoked by changes in the environment. Once activated, acts as an upstream activator of the MKK/JNK signal transduction cascade through the phosphorylation of MAP2K4/MKK4 and MAP2K7/MKK7 which in turn activate the JNKs. The MKK/JNK signaling pathway regulates stress response via activator protein-1 (JUN) and GATA4 transcription factors. Plays also a role in mitochondrial death signaling pathway, including the release cytochrome c, leading to apoptosis.