Protein kinase C (PKC) isoforms are potentially important as modulators of the insulin signalling chain and could be involved in the pathogenesis of cellular insulin resistance. We have previously shown that phorbol ester stimulated PKC beta1 and beta2 as well as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNFalpha) stimulated PKC epsilon inhibit human insulin receptor (HIR) signalling. There is increasing evidence that the insulin receptor substrate-1 (IRS-1) is involved in inhibitory signals in insulin receptor function. The aim of the present study was to elucidate the role of IRS-1 in the inhibitory effects of protein kinase C on human insulin receptor function. HIR, PKC isoforms (alpha, beta1, beta2, gamma, delta, epsilon, eta, theta and zeta) and IRS-1 were coexpressed in human embryonic kidney (HEK) 293 cells. PKCs were activated by preincubation with the phorbol ester 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol 13-acetate (CTPA) (10(-7) mol/l) following insulin stimulation. While PKCs alpha, delta and theta were not inhibitory in HEK 293 cells which were transfected only with HIR and PKC, additional transfection of IRS-1 induced a strong inhibitory effect of these PKC isoforms being maximal for PKC theta (99 +/- 1.8% inhibition of insulin stimulated receptor autophosphorylation, n = 7, p < 0.001). No effect was seen with PKC gamma, epsilon, zeta and eta while the earlier observed insulin receptor kinase inhibition of PKC beta2 was further augmented (91 +/- 13%, n = 7, p < 0.001 instead of 45% without IRS-1). The strong inhibitory effect of PKC theta is accompanied by a molecular weight shift of IRS-1 (183 kDa vs 180 kDa) in the sodium dodecyl sulphate polyacrylamide gel. This can be reversed by alkaline phosphatase treatment of IRS-1 suggesting that this molecular weight shift is due to an increased phosphorylation of IRS-1 on serine or threonine residues. In summary, these data show that IRS-1 is involved in the inhibitory effect of the PKC isoforms alpha, beta2, delta and theta and it is likely that this involves serine/threonine phosphorylation of IRS-1.