We have investigated the effects of Ro 31-7549, a selective protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitor, on DNA synthesis and proliferation in two primary mouse epidermal keratinocyte culture systems. In differentiating keratinocytes incubated in medium containing 10% serum and high calcium (approximately 0.5 mM), Ro 31-7549 blocked the inhibitory effect of the phorbol ester 12-0-tetradecanoyl-13-acetate (TPA) (a PKC activator) on keratinocyte DNA synthesis at 24 h [50% maximal response concentration (EC50) = 1 microM], consistent with inhibition of PKC-mediated differentiation. Continuous treatment of the differentiative culture system with the PKC inhibitor resulted in a marked (fourfold) stimulation of [3H]thymidine incorporation at day 7 of exposure, with an EC50 of 0.25 microM. The potencies of these effects of Ro 31-7549 are comparable to that reported for inhibition of TPA-induced platelet 47-kD protein phosphorylation [50% inhibitory concentration (IC50) = 4.4 microM]. The time course of [3H]thymidine incorporation indicated that Ro 31-7549 did not directly stimulate DNA synthesis but instead prevented the loss of proliferative capacity associated with continued culture in this medium. Maximal stimulation (2.6 times) of DNA synthesis was observed on day 4, whereas DNA synthesis at day 1 was unaffected. In a highly proliferative culture system using serum-free medium containing 25 microM calcium, TPA dose-dependently inhibited proliferation with an IC50 of approximately 0.3 mM. This antiproliferative effect of TPA was largely reversed by 0.1 microM Ro 31-7549. In the proliferative culture system, 0.75 microM Ro 31-7549 also essentially reversed the inhibition of proliferation caused by switching to high (1.0 mM) calcium. These results suggest that the loss of proliferative capacity in differentiating epidermal keratinocyte cultures may be mediated, at least in part, by PKC.