We have examined the human androgen receptor (hAR) for its ability to activate AR-dependent transcription of a transgene in a ligand-independent manner. The transcriptional activity was determined by analysis of chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) activity in T47D cells cotransfected with a plasmid expressing the hAR and a natural AR-regulated promoter (the MVDP androgen-dependent enhancer) ligated to the reporter CAT gene. In this study, the effects of the protein kinase C (PKC) activator 12-O-tetradecanoyphorbol-13 acetate (TPA) on AR activity were tested. We demonstrated that in the absence of androgen, TPA enhanced AR-mediated transactivation by 10-12-fold. This effect was specific of the PKC pathway since stimulation to the PKA pathway did not activate the unliganded AR. This ligand-independent pathway can function through another androgen-regulated promoter as shown by the use of the mouse mammary tumor virus MMTV-CAT reporter. The human glucocorticoid receptor (hGR) and the rabbit progesterone receptor (rPR) could not be activated by TPA, indicating that the effects are not universal for steroid receptors. A reporter plasmid containing the MVDP androgen response element (ARE) in front of the thymidine kinase promoter ligated to the CAT gene was activated by DHT but not by TPA, indicating that the context of the natural promoter is critical for ligand-independent activation of the AR. Exogenous c-jun enhanced transcriptional activation by the AR in a ligand-dependent manner, but had no effect in the absence of DHT. Base pair substitutions in both AR-binding (5'-TGTTCT-3' to 5'-TTTTTT-3') and NF1-binding (5'-GTGGCTG-3' to 5'-GTTTTTG-3') sites resulted in a loss of TPA responsiveness. Our results suggest that ligand-independent activation of the AR by TPA results from interaction of unliganded AR with other proteins in the transcription machinery.