The mRNA of transferrin receptor (TfR) is constitutively expressed in proliferating human leukaemic HL-60 cells. Treatment of HL-60 cells with phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA), a protein kinase C (PKC) activator, or dibutyryl-cyclic AMP (dbcAMP), a protein kinase A (PKA) activator, resulted in a 90% decrease in the level of TfR mRNA. Inhibition of TfR mRNA expression induced by 10 nM PMA and 100 microM dbcAMP was abolished by prior incubation of cells with 0.1-1.0 microM GF109203X, a PKC-specific inhibitor, and 1-10 microM H-89, a PKA-specific inhibitor, respectively. The blocking effects of GF109203X and H-89 were dose-dependent and complete at the highest concentrations of the inhibitors used. Although treatment of cells with GF109203X or H-89 alone did not alter the constitutive expression of TfR mRNA, incubation of cells with 30-100 nM staurosporine, a wide-spectrum protein kinase inhibitor, resulted in suppression of the constitutive expression of TfR mRNA in a dose-dependent manner. These results suggest that (i) the down-regulation of TfR mRNA expression during the differentiation of HL-60 cells can be mediated by activation of either PKC or PKA; (ii) the constitutive expression of TfR mRNA in proliferating HL-60 cells is staurosporine-sensitive and is probably maintained by protein kinase(s) other than PKC and PKA.