Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a potent endothelial cell mitogen which mediates its effects by binding to tyrosine kinase receptors. We have characterized the VEGF-activated intracellular signal transduction pathway in bovine aortic endothelial cells and correlated this to its mitogenic effects. VEGF induced concentration- and time-dependent increases in protein kinase C (PKC) activation with a maximum of 2.2-fold above the basal level at 5 x 10(-10) M within 10 min as measured both by in situ and translocation assays. Immunoblotting analysis of PKC isoforms in cytosolic and membrane fractions indicated that after VEGF stimulation the content of Ca(2+)-sensitive PKC isoforms (alpha and betaII) was increased in the membrane fractions, whereas no changes were observed for PKC isoforms delta and epsilon. The stimulation of PKC activity by VEGF was preceded by the activation of phospholipase Cgamma (PLCgamma). This was demonstrated by parallel increases in PLCgamma tyrosine phosphorylation, [3H]inositol phosphate production, and [3H]arachidonic acid-labeled diacylglycerol formation in bovine aortic endothelial cells. In addition, VEGF increased phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase activity 2.1-fold which was inhibited by wortmannin, a phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase inhibitor, without decreasing the VEGF-induced increase in PKC activity or endothelial cell growth. Interestingly, genistein, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, and GFX or H-7, PKC inhibitors, abolished both VEGF-induced PKC activation and endothelial cell proliferation. VEGF's mitogenic effect was inhibited by a PKC isoform beta-selective inhibitor, LY333531, in a concentration-dependent manner. In contrast, antisense PKC-alpha oligonucleotides enhanced VEGF-stimulated cell growth with a simultaneous decrease of 70% in PKC-alpha protein content. Thus, VEGF appears to mediate its mitogenic effects partly through the activation of the PLCgamma and PKC pathway, involving predominately PKC-beta isoform activation in endothelial cells.