The signaling mechanisms leading to phorbol ester myristate (PMA)-induced differentiation of HL-60 cells to the macrophagelike phenotype were investigated by using different protein kinase inhibitors. The protein kinase C inhibitor Ro 31-8220 specifically blocks PMA-induced differentiation, activation of the p42/44ERK- and p38RK-MAP kinase cascades and Hsp27-phosphorylation in HL-60 cells. Because Ro 31-8220 does not inhibit activation of the MAP kinase cascades by protein kinase C (PKC)-independent signals such as epidermal growth factor (EGF), heat shock, or anisomycin in these cells, only PMA-induced activation of the MAP kinases can be downstream of PKC. The MEK1 inhibitor PD 098059 and the p38RK inhibitor SB 203580 also were used to analyze whether the PMA-induced PKC-dependent activation of MAP kinases is involved in the differentiation process. Under certain conditions, PD 098059 can completely block the PMA-induced activation of the p42ERK as monitored by immunoprecipitation kinase assay by using the substrate myelin basic protein. SB 203580 specifically inhibits activation of p38RK as judged by MAPKAP kinase 2 activity against the substrate Hsp27 and also blocks Hsp27 phosphorylation in the cells. In contrast, neither PD 098059 nor SB 203580 nor both inhibitors together prevent PMA-induced differentiation of the HL-60 cells to the macrophagelike phenotype. The results suggest the existence of a diversification of PMA-induced signaling in HL-60 cells downstream of PKC, leading to activation of MAP kinases that are not essential for differentiation and to phosphorylation of other, so far unidentified, targets responsible for differentiation.