Defective protein kinase C (PKC) has been implicated in impaired Na+,K(+)-ATPase activity in the sciatic nerve of streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats. In the present study, alpha, beta I, beta II, gamma, delta, and epsilon isoform-specific antibodies were used in parallel to the measurement of compound PKC activity for the characterization of PKC distribution and isoform expression in sciatic nerves of normal and diabetic rats. To distinguish isoform expression between the axonal and glial compartments, PKC isoforms were evaluated in nerves subjected to Wallerian degeneration and in a pure primary Schwann cell culture. alpha, beta I, beta II, delta, and epsilon but no gamma isoforms were detected in sciatic nerve. Similar immunoreactivity was observed in degenerated nerves 3-4 days after transection except for diminished beta I and epsilon species; in Schwann cell cultures, only alpha, beta II, delta, and epsilon were detected. In normal nerves, two-thirds of PKC compound activity was found in the cytosol and 50% of total enzyme activity translocated to the Na+,K(+)-ATPase-enriched membrane fraction with phorbol myristate acetate. Similar redistribution patterns were observed for the immunoreactivity of all isoforms with the exception of delta, which did not translocate to the membrane with phorbol myristate acetate. No abnormality in compound PKC activity, in the immunoreactive intensity, or in the distribution of PKC isoforms could be detected in rat sciatic nerve after 6-12 weeks of diabetes. Thus, defective activation rather than decreased intrinsic PKC activity may occur in diabetic neuropathy.