Activation of PKC with 5 nM 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) for 72 h in human U937 myeloid leukemia cells is associated with induction of adherence, followed by monocytic differentiation and G0/G1 cell cycle arrest. In this study, we demonstrate that in addition to these effects about 25% of U937 cells accumulated in an apoptotic subG1 phase after TPA treatment. The appearance of these apoptotic suspension cells was detectable throughout the time course of the culture and was independent of TPA concentrations between 0.5 and 500 nM. Experiments with cells synchronized by centrifugal elutriation revealed dominant susceptibility of G1-phase cells to TPA-mediated apoptosis. While adherent cells expressed differentiation markers including the integrin CD11c, this effect was less pronounced in the TPA-treated suspension fraction. Moreover, previous work has demonstrated cell cycle arrest in differentiating U937 cells. Accordingly, PKC activation by TPA treatment was associated with a significant expression of the cdk/cyclin inhibitor p21WAF/CIP/sdi-1 in the adherent population and subsequent G0/G1 cell cycle arrest. In contrast, suspension cells failed to induce significant levels of p21WAF/CIP/sdi-1 after TPA stimulation. Immunoblotting experiments demonstrated no difference in the expression of the pro-apoptotic factors Bax, Bad, and Bak in either control U937 and TPA-treated adherent or suspension cells, respectively. However, anti-apoptotic factors including Bcl-2, Bcl-xL, and Mcl-1 were significantly induced in the adherent population whereas no induction was detectable in the suspension cells. In this context, incubation with the caspase-3/caspase-7 specific tetrapeptide inhibitor DEVD prior to TPA treatment prevented an accumulation of cells in subG1, respectively, demonstrating an involvement of these caspases. Taken together, these data suggest that PKC activation can relay distinct signaling pathways such as induction of adherence coupled with monocytic differentiation and growth arrest, or induction of caspase-mediated apoptosis coupled with the failure to adhere and to differentiate.