The control of branching of axons and dendrites is poorly understood. It has been hypothesized that branching may be produced by changes in the cytoskeleton [F.J. Diez-Guerra, J. Avila, MAP2 phosphorylation parallels dendrite arborization in hippocampal neurones in culture, NeuroReport 4 (1993) 412-419; P. Friedrich, A. Aszodi, MAP2: a sensitive cross-linker and adjustable spacer in dendritic architecture, FEBS Lett. 295 (1991) 5-9]. The assembly and stability of microtubules, which are prominent cytoskeletal elements in both axons and dendrites, are regulated by microtubule-associated proteins, including tau (predominantly found in axons) and MAP2 (predominantly found in dendrites). The phosphorylation state of tau and MAP2 modulates their interactions with microtubules. In their low-phosphorylation states, tau and MAP2 bind to microtubules and increase microtubule assembly and/or stability. Increased phosphorylation decreases these effects. Diez-Guerra and Avila [F.J. Diez-Guerra, J. Avila, MAP2 phosphorylation parallels dendrite arborization in hippocampal neurones in culture, NeuroReport 4 (1993) 412-419] found that protein phosphorylation correlates with neurite branching in cultured rat hippocampal neurons, and hypothesized that increased protein phosphorylation stimulates neurite branching. To test this hypothesis, we cultured rat hippocampal neurons in the presence of specific modulators of serine-threonine protein kinases and phosphatases. Inhibitors of several protein kinases, which would be expected to decrease protein phosphorylation, reduced branching. KT5720, an inhibitor of cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase, and KN62, an inhibitor of Ca(2+)-calmodulin-dependent protein kinases, inhibited branching of both axons and dendrites. Calphostin C and chelerythrine, inhibitors of protein kinase C, inhibited branching of axons but not dendrites. Treatments that would be expected to increase protein phosphorylation, including inhibitors of protein phosphatases (okadaic acid, cyclosporin A and FK506) and stimulators of PKA (SP-cAMPS) or PKC (phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate), increased dendrite branching. Only FK506 and phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate stimulated axon branching. A subset of these agents was tested to confirm their effects on protein phosphorylation in this preparation. Okadaic acid, FK506 and SP-cAMPS all increased protein phosphorylation; KT5720 and KN62 decreased protein phosphorylation. On Western blots, the position of MAP2c extracted from cultures exposed to okadaic acid was slightly shifted toward higher molecular weight, suggesting greater phosphorylation, while the position of MAP2c from cultures exposed to KT5720 and KN62 was slightly shifted toward lower molecular weight, suggesting less phosphorylation. We conclude that protein phosphorylation modulates both dendrite branching and axon branching, but with differences in sensitivity to phosphorylation and/or dephosphorylation by specific kinases and phosphatases.