All six isoforms of the microtubule-associated protein tau are present in hyperphosphorylated states in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease (AD). It is presently unclear how such hyperphosphorylation of tau is controlled. In a previous study (Singh et al. Arch Biochem Biophys 328: 43-50, 1996) we have shown that three-repeat taus containing two N-terminal inserts were phosphorylated to higher levels and at different sites compared to those either lacking or containing only one such insert. We have extended these observations in this study by comparing the phosphorylation of tau isoforms containing three-repeats (tau 3, tau 3 L) and four-repeats (tau 4, tau 4 L). In the absence of N-terminal inserts in tau structure (tau 3, tau 4) both CaM kinase II and C-kinase phosphorylated four-repeat tau (tau 4) to a higher extent than three-repeat tau (tau 3). When two N-terminal inserts are present in tau structure (tau 3 L, tau 4 L), then three-repeat tau (tau 3 L) is phosphorylated to a higher extent than four-repeat tau (tau 4 L) by these kinases. CK-1 and GSK-3 phosphorylated each of the above pairs of three-repeat and four-repeat taus to the same extents. However, after an initial prephosphorylation of the taus by CaM kinase II, GSK-3 differentially phosphorylated three-repeat and four-repeat taus. Under these conditions thr 231, ser 235, ser 396, and ser 404 were phosphorylated to greater extents in four-repeat tau (tau 4) compared to three-repeat tau (tau 3) in the absence of N-terminal inserts. In the presence of such inserts these sites were phosphorylated to greater extents in three-repeat (tau 3 L) compared to four-repeat (tau 4 L) tau. Our results indicate that the extents to which tau isoforms are phosphorylated in normal and AD brain depends on (a) the number of repeats (3 or 4), (b) the number of N-terminal inserts (0, 1, or 2), and (c) the initial phosphorylation state of tau.