Among environmental pollutants, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD; dioxin) is one of the most potent tumor promoters and teratogens known. The molecular mechanisms responsible for the biological activity of TCDD, however, remain largely unknown. In this report, we show that the first observable effects of TCDD in cultured murine hepatoma cells are a rapid, transient increase in Ca2+ influx and a minor but significant elevation of activated, membrane-bound protein kinase C. These changes are then followed by induction of the immediate early proto-oncogenes c-fos, jun-B, c-jun, and jun-D, and by large increases in AP-1 transcription factor activity. Induction of these changes by TCDD is delayed compared with that by phorbol esters, although the magnitude of the effects caused by both treatments is similar, and both induction processes can be blocked by staurosporine, a protein kinase C inhibitor. In cultured cells, proto-oncogene induction by TCDD appears to be independent of the presence of a functional aryl hydrocarbon (Ah) receptor or nuclear translocation protein. These results reveal early events that may lead to the elucidation of the molecular basis of TCDD-induced tumor promotion.