Cells respond to changes in osmotic pressure with compensatory molecular adaptations that allow them to re-establish homeostasis of osmotically disturbed aspects of cell structure and function. In addition, some cell types respond to osmotic stress by changing their phenotype or, if their tolerance threshold is exceeded, by initiating programmed cell death. To understand how cells achieve these different types of adaptive response to osmotic stress, it is necessary to identify the key elements of osmosensory signal transduction and to analyze the complex networks that process osmotic stimuli imposed upon cells by their environment. This review highlights mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) cascades as important intracellular signal-transduction pathways activated in response to changes in osmolality. A unifying theme of osmotic stress signaling via MAPKs seems to be regulation of the cell cycle as part of the cellular stress response. This very important physiological capacity may have been conserved throughout evolution as a major function of MAPKs from many different subfamilies. The evidence for this conjecture is discussed, and our current knowledge about osmotic stress signaling pathways in yeast, animals and plants is briefly reviewed.