Human umbilical vein endothelial cells differentiate within 12 h to form capillary-like networks of tube structures when the cells are plated on Matrigel, a mixture of basement membrane proteins. Nothing is known about the intracellular signaling events involved in this differentiation. As a first step to define the process, we investigated the possible role of protein kinase C activation by beta-phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) in regulating the formation of the tube structures. In this model, PMA increased tube formation several-fold in a dose-dependent manner with half-maximum stimulation of tube formation at approximately 5 nM PMA. In the absence of serum, essentially little or no tubes were formed on Matrigel unless PMA was added to the medium. Only active phorbol analogs increased tube formation, while the protein kinase C inhibitor, H-7, blocked tube formation. The protein kinase C activators and inhibitors were effective only when added at or just after plating of the cells and did not affect already formed tubes. This study suggests that protein kinase C is involved in the early events of in vitro endothelial cell tube formation on Matrigel.