Parathyroid hormone (PTH) secretion is stimulated by low extracellular calcium (Ca2+) in association with a reduction in cyosolic Ca2+, indicating that this cell type does not conform to classical models of stimulus-secretion coupling. We used the phorbol ester TPA (12-O-tetradecanoyl phorbol 13-acetate), which directly activates protein kinase C, to investigate the possible role of this enzyme in the unusual secretory properties of the parathyroid cell. TPA causes a dose-dependent stimulation of PTH release inhibited by high extracellular Ca2+ (EC50 = 10 nM) but has relatively little effect on secretion stimulated by low Ca2+. This effect was mimicked by the beta 4-isomer of phorbol 12,13-didecanoate which also activates kinase C, but not by the alpha 4-isomer, which has no effect on this enzyme. TPA does not modify cellular cAMP or cytosolic Ca2+ in the parathyroid cell indicating that its effects on PTH secretion are not mediated indirectly via changes in these second messengers. These results suggest that inhibition of PTH release at high Ca2+ might be related to a reduction in protein kinase C activity which can be overcome when the enzyme is directly activated by TPA.