The MDR1 gene encoding the multidrug pump P-glycoprotein is transcriptionally activated in response to diverse extracellular stimuli, including the tumor promoting phorbol ester, 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA). However, the signal transduction pathway responsible is unknown. Downstream of protein kinase C (PKC), the effects of TPA are often mediated by the Raf-1/MEK/ERK mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) cascade, and Raf-1 has been implicated in MDR1 induction by serum and mitogens. Therefore, we examined the potential role of MAPK activation in TPA-mediated MDR1 induction in human leukemia K562 cells. MDR1 mRNA expression was significantly increased by TPA in the concentration range of 4 - 100 nM, with a maximal response 5 - 10 h after TPA addition. TPA-mediated MDR1 induction was inhibited by several PKC inhibitors including staurosporine, H7 and calphostin C. TPA stimulated the subcellular translocation of PKCalpha from the cytosol to the membrane and nucleus but did not affect other PKC isozymes. TPA also activated the Raf1/MEK/ERK cascade and activated another MAPK member, p38, but not JNK. In order to determine the potential role of MAPKs in MDR1 induction by TPA, specific inhibitors were utilized. The MEK inhibitor PD 098059, as well as the PKC inhibitors, completely blocked TPA-mediated ERK activation. However, under identical conditions, MDR1 induction by TPA was completely unaffected by PD 098059. Furthermore, SB 202190, which effectively inhibited TPA-mediated p38 activation, failed to inhibit TPA-induced MDR1 mRNA expression. These data demonstrate that MDR1 induction by TPA occurs via a PKC-dependent mechanism that operates independently of ERK, p38 or JNK pathways, and thus have important implications for understanding the mechanisms of MDR1 induction by extracellular stimuli.