Four cyclic-nucleotide phosphodiesterase (PDE) genes belonging to the PDE4 family (PDE4A, 4B, 4C and 4D) have been identified. All four isogenes, including several deletions and alterations of the amino, carboxyl and central catalytic domains, were expressed in insect cells. Lysates were characterised for enzyme activity by using the Km for substrate and the EC50 for activation by the cofactor Mg2+. The catalytic domain alone appears to be sufficient for the normal enzymatic function of PDE4 proteins. Substrate affinity varied by less than 2-fold between catalytic-domain forms of the PDE4A, 4B and 4D isogenes and the long forms (PDE4A5, PDE4B1 and PDE4D3). The affinity for Mg2+ varied by less than 4-fold between long and catalytic-domain forms of PDE4A and 4B. The catalytic-domain form of PDE4D, however, had a 12-fold lower affinity for Mg2+ that was restored by including a portion of the amino-terminal domain, upstream conserved region-2 (UCR2). This result suggests that the Mg2+-binding site of PDE4D involves the UCR2 region. Inhibition of the PDE4 proteins by synthetic compounds is apparently affected differently by the domains. For PDE4B, the catalytic domain is sufficient for interactions with the inhibitors studied: IBMX, trequinsin, rolipram, TVX 2706, RP 73401 and RS-25344. For PDE4D the catalytic-domain form is less sensitive than the long form to inhibition by RS-25344, rolipram and TVX 2706, by 1463-, 11-and 12-fold, respectively. Addition of UCR2 to the catalytic-domain form of PDE4D restored all the lost sensitivities. The catalytic-domain form of PDE4A showed a reduced inhibitor affinity with RS-25344 and TVX 2706 by 77- and 90-fold, respectively. Both catalytic-domain and long forms of PDE4 isogenes interacted with equal affinity with the non-specific inhibitors IBMX and trequinsin, as well as the very potent PDE4-specific inhibitor RP 73401. Other potent and specific PDE4 inhibitors, such as rolipram, RS-25344 or TVX 2706, appear to utilize non-catalytic domain interactions with PDE4D and 4A to supplement those within the catalytic domains. These observations suggest a different relation between amino and catalytic domains in PDE4D relative to PDE4B. We therefore propose a model to illustrate these isogene-specific PDE4 domain interactions with substrate, inhibitors and the co-factor Mg2+. The model for PDE4D is also discussed in relation to changes in the activation curve for Mg2+ and sensitivity to RS-25344 that accompany phosphorylation of the long form by protein kinase A.