1. The effects of phorbol esters on evoked and spontaneous excitatory neurotransmission were studied in the CA1 area in the in vitro hippocampal slice preparation of the rat. Experiments were conducted using field potential recording and whole-cell voltage clamp of CA1 pyramidal neurons. 2. Pyramidal cells dialysed during whole-cell recording with EGTA-containing electrode solutions, unable to support the induction of long-term potentiation (LTP), still showed robust phorbol ester-induced potentiation of excitatory synaptic transmission. 3. Spontaneous miniature excitatory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs), recorded in whole-cell voltage clamp in the presence of tetrodotoxin and picrotoxin, had amplitudes ranging from 4 to 40 pA and occurred at an average frequency of 0.8-5 Hz. Neither the amplitude nor the frequency of spontaneous EPSCs was altered by cadmium, dihydropyridines, or omega-conotoxin GVIA. 4. The phorbol ester 4-beta-phorbol 12,13-diacetate increased the frequency of spontaneous miniature EPSCs without changing the shape of the EPSC amplitude distribution, suggesting that phorbol esters exert their potentiating effects presynaptically. 5. Blockade of voltage-dependent calcium channels with cadmium attenuated the phorbol-induced increase in spontaneous miniature EPSCs frequency. The phorbol ester-induced increase in miniature EPSC frequency was also attenuated by dihydropyridines, but not by omega-conotoxin GVIA. 6. Unlike spontaneous synaptic currents, stimulus-evoked synaptic currents were reduced by omega-conotoxin but not by nifedipine. 7. We conclude that the phorbol ester increases spontaneous release of glutamate by modulating an L-type channel that does not participate in stimulus-evoked neurotransmitter release.