Sphingosine kinase functions in both the catabolism of sphingosine and in signal transduction pathways utilizing sphingosine-1-phosphate. The regulation of sphingosine kinase activity in human erythroleukemia (HEL) cells was investigated by treatment with several bioactive agents. Treatment of HEL cells with phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) caused a time- and concentration-dependent increase in sphingosine kinase activity measured in vitro. Sphingosine kinase activity increased in a phorbol ester- and diacylglycerol-specific manner. Staurosporine and calphostin C, protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitors, blocked the increased in sphingosine kinase activity, suggesting a PKC-dependent regulation. The effects of PMA on sphingosine kinase were dependent on transcription and translation. Purified PKC had no direct effect on sphingosine kinase activity. However, these studies led to the observation that HEL cell sphingosine kinase activity is stimulated in vitro by phosphatidylserine. Interestingly, other inducers of HEL cell differentiation, dimethylsulfoxide and retinoic acid, did not affect sphingosine kinase activity. These results indicate a separate and distinct pathway of PKC-dependent sphingosine kinase activation, and suggest a role for sphingosine kinase in regulation of cell function.