Prothoracicotropic hormone (PTTH) is a brain neuropeptide that stimulates the prothoracic glands to synthesize ecdysone, an event that leads to insect molting. Both cyclic AMP (cAMP) and calcium have been implicated in PTTH action, with current evidence favoring cAMP as the messenger directly regulating ecdysone synthesis. To further define the role of cAMP in PTTH action, the activity of cAMP-dependent protein kinase (cAMP-PK) was examined in prothoracic glands from two developmental stages of the tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta (day 3 fifth instar larvae and day 0 pupae). Prothoracic glands at each of these stages of development possess two forms of cAMP-PK which resemble the vertebrate type I and type II isozymes, with the latter being the predominant form (greater than 90%). Marked developmental differences exist in the degree of activation of soluble cAMP-PK following in vitro exposure of the prothoracic glands to PTTH. In larval glands, soluble cAMP-PK is activated within 3-10 min of initial exposure to doses of PTTH that stimulate ecdysone synthesis. By contrast, activation of soluble cAMP-PK in pupal glands occurs only when PTTH is administered in the presence of a phosphodiesterase inhibitor. Developmental differences in the activation of cAMP-PK by PTTH were qualitatively identical to previously observed differences in PTTH-stimulated accumulation of intracellular cAMP. The results suggest an involvement of soluble cAMP-PK in the response of day 3 fifth instar larval prothoracic glands to PTTH, but indicate a difference in the nature, intracellular location, or time course of activation, of hormone-sensitive protein kinase in day 0 pupal glands.