The benzophenanthridine alkaloid chelerythrine is a potent, selective antagonist of the Ca++/phospholopid-dependent protein kinase (Protein kinase C: PKC) from the rat brain. Half-maximal inhibition of the kinase occurs at 0.66 microM. Chelerythrine interacted with the catalytic domain of PKC, was a competitive inhibitor with respect to the phosphate acceptor (histone IIIS) (Ki = 0.7 microM) and a non-competitive inhibitor with respect to ATP. This effect was further evidenced by the fact that chelerythrine inhibited native PKC and its catalytic fragment identically and did not affect [3H]- phorbol 12,13 dibutyrate binding to PKC. Chelerythrine selectively inhibited PKC compared to tyrosine protein kinase, cAMP-dependent protein kinase and calcium/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase. The potent antitumoral activity of celerythrine measured in vitro might be due at least in part to inhibition of PKC and thus suggests that PKC may be a model for rational design of antitumor drugs.