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Increasing interest in anhydrobiosis (‘life without water’) has prompted the use of mammalian cells as a model in which candidate adaptations suspected of conferring desiccation tolerance can be tested. Despite this, there is no information on whether mammalian cells are able to sense and respond to desiccation. We have therefore examined the effect of desiccation on stress signalling pathways and on genes which are proposed to be expressed in response to water loss through osmotic stress. Depending on the severity of the drying regime, human cells survived for at least 24 h. Both SAPK/JNK and p38 mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) were activated within 30 min by desiccation as well as by all osmotica tested, and therefore MAPK pathways probably play an important role in both responses. Gene induction profiles differed under the two stress conditions, however: quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) experiments showed that AR, BGT-1 and SMIT, which encode proteins governing organic osmolyte accumulation, were induced by hypersalinity but not by desiccation. This was surprising, since these genes have been proposed to be regulated by ionic strength and cell volume, both of which should be significantly affected in drying cells. Further investigation demonstrated that AR, BGT-1 and SMIT expression was dependent on the nature of the osmolyte. This suggests that their regulation involves factors other than intracellular ionic strength and cell volume changes, consistent with the lack of induction by desiccation. Our results show for the first time that human cells react rapidly to desiccation by MAPK activation, and that the response partially overlaps with that to hyperosmotic stress.