The effect of protein kinase C (PKC) modulation on gonadotrophin-induced ovarian granulosa cell differentiation was investigated by using an activator of PKC, phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) and inhibitors of PKC, sphingosine (SPH) and staurosporine (ST). The effects of PMA (at doses which activate PKC (10 ng mL-1), and down-regulate PKC (1000 ng mL-1)), sphingosine (25 microM) and staurosporine (10(-10)-10(-7) M) on gonadotrophin-induced granulosa cell differentiation were studied by the determination of steroidogenesis and cAMP accumulation in immature rat ovarian granulosa cells treated with or without pregnant mare serum gonadotrophin (100 mU mL-1). PMA (10 ng mL-1) inhibited gonadotrophin-induced granulosa cell steroidogenesis and cAMP accumulation. PMA (1000 ng mL-1)-induced down-regulation of PKC did not affect gonadotrophin-induced steroidogenesis. The inhibitory effect of PMA (10 ng mL-1) on gonadotrophin-induced granulosa cell steroidogenesis was not present in PKC-down-regulated cells. These data indicate that PKC activation by PMA inhibits gonadotrophin-induced steroidogenesis. SPH also inhibited gonadotrophin-induced steroidogenesis and cAMP accumulation. This effect of SPH was not affected by PMA-induced PKC down-regulation, indicating that this action of SPH does not require PKC or is mediated via a phorbol ester-insensitive PKC isoform. ST induced steroidogenesis in the absence of gonadotrophin, but was not synergistic with gonadotrophin. PMA-induced down-regulation of PKC abolished the effect of ST, suggesting that the action of ST requires PKC. The data suggest that ST and PMA, which antagonize each other in gonadotrophin-induced steroidogenesis, act via a PKC-mediated mechanism whereas the cAMP-associated actions of gonadotrophins and SPH are not dependent on PKC.