Phorbol esters such as 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) inhibit the growth of A549 human lung carcinoma cells at non-toxic concentrations, whereas 1-oleoyl-2-acetylglycerol and 1,2-dioctanoylglycerol, synthetic analogues of the physiological ligands of protein kinase C (PKC), do not. Experiments were conducted to test the hypothesis that other activators of PKC are capable of interfering with A549 cell growth. The non-phorboid tumour promotor mezerein mimicked the growth-inhibitory effect of TPA in that it arrested growth for 5 days, after which cells proliferated again in the continued presence of the agent. TPA was 20 times more potent as a growth inhibitor than was mezerein. Bryostatin 1 at 10 nM and bryostatin 2 at 100 nM also arrested A549 cell growth and inhibited DNA replication as measured by incorporation of [methyl-3H]-thymidine into cells. Inhibition of DNA synthesis to between 90 and 75% of control values developed during the first hour of incubation of the cells with TPA, mezerein or the bryostatins. The extent of inhibition changed little during the subsequent 5 hr of incubation, after which it increased further to reach maximal values within 12 hr. At concentrations above those which caused maximal growth inhibition, the bryostatins abolished both their own inhibition of DNA synthesis and the anti-replicative effect of TPA and mezerein. The results show that activators of PKC other than phorbol esters are capable of inhibiting the growth of A549 cells. The bryostatins not only interfere with A549 cell growth but can also counter the growth-inhibitory effect of PKC activators, presumably via interaction with a target separate from the phorbol ester receptor site.