Productive interaction of a T lymphocyte with an antigen-presenting cell results in the clustering of the T-cell antigen receptor (TCR) and the recruitment of a large signalling complex to the site of cell-cell contact. Subsequent signal transduction resulting in cytokine gene expression requires the activation of one or more of the multiple isoenzymes of serine/threonine-specific protein kinase C (PKC). Among the several PKC isoenzymes expressed in T cells, PKC-theta is unique in being rapidly recruited to the site of TCR clustering. Here we show that PKC-theta is essential for TCR-mediated T-cell activation, but is dispensable during TCR-dependent thymocyte development. TCR-initiated NF-kappaB activation was absent from PKC-theta(-/-) mature T lymphocytes, but was intact in thymocytes. Activation of NF-kappaB by tumour-necrosis factor alpha and interleukin-1 was unaffected in the mutant mice. Although studies in T-cell lines had suggested that PKC-theta regulates activation of the JNK signalling pathway, induction of JNK was normal in T cells from mutant mice. These results indicate that PKC-theta functions in a unique pathway that links the TCR signalling complex to the activation of NF-kappaB in mature T lymphocytes.