Diacylglycerol analogues (for example 1,2-oleoylacetylglycerol, OAG) and phorbol esters are activators of protein kinase C, and have been widely used to study the function of this enzyme in both intact cells and cell-free preparations. Electrophysiological studies have shown that these activators can either depress or increase Ca2+ currents, or decrease K+ currents when applied outside the cell. It has been assumed that these effects are mediated by protein kinase C activation. Here we report that micromolar levels of OAG and phorbol esters depress Ca2+ currents in chick sensory neurons independently of their effect as activators of protein kinase C. The depression of the Ca2+ current is rapid and is unaffected by intracellular application of the protein kinase C inhibitors staurosporin, sphingosine and H-7. Furthermore, the activators were ineffective when applied intracellularly, indicating that their site of action is on the outside of the membrane.