The role of protein kinase C (PK-C) in the early metabolic events involved in human natural killer (NK) cell activation has been studied through the action of PK-C-specific activators and inhibitors. Highly purified human large granular lymphocytes (LGL) were treated for 1 hr with the diacylglycerol analog 1-oleoyl-2-acetyl glycerol (OAG) (10(-4)-10(-5) g/ml) or with 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) (10(-8)-10(-10) g/ml), both specific activators of PK-C. Both these agents consistently increased NK activity against K562 target cells. Suboptimal doses of either OAG or TPA also synergized with Ca2+ ionophores to augment spontaneous cytotoxic activity. Pretreatment of LGL with 1-(5-isoquinolinesulfonyl)-2-methylpiperazine dihydrocloride (H7) (5-40 microM), a potent PK-C inhibitor, greatly reduced NK activity in a time- and dose-dependent fashion. By contrast, N-(2-guanidinoethyl)-5-isoquinolinesulfonamide hydrochloride (HA 1004), a potent cAMP- and cGMP-dependent PK inhibitor with almost no effect on PK-C, marginally reduced NK activity. Moreover, almost complete NK activity inhibition was observed when H7 (10 microM), but not HA 1004 (50 microM), was present in the NK assay. Finally, 48 hr stimulation of LGL with TPA (10(-6) g/ml), a treatment able to inactivate most of the PK-C cellular pool, almost completely abrogated NK activity. This functional evidence was supported by phosphorylation of several endogenous substrates which occurs within 5 min in TPA-treated LGL. Two proteins of 70 and 56 kDa have been identified as major PK-C substrates, together with other phosphorylated proteins with MW ranging from 177 to 43 kDa. H7, but not HA 1004, almost completely inhibited the TPA-induced phosphorylation of all of these proteins in the NK cells. These data strongly suggest that selective activation of PK-C plays an essential role in the mechanisms of NK cell activation.