We examined the separate and combined effects of 60 Hz sinusoidal magnetic fields (MFs) and a phorbol ester on protein kinase C (PKC) activity in HL60 cells. No enhancement in PKC activity was observed when a cell culture was exposed to a 1.1 mT (rms) MF alone or to a combination of MF and 2 microM phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) for 1 h. In a second set of experiments, cells were preexposed to a less than optimal concentration of PMA (50 nM) for 45 min, followed by a 15 min exposure to both PMA and MF. The data showed a greater decrease in cytosolic PKC activity and a larger increase in membrane activity than was induced by either 1 h PMA treatment alone or PMA and sham MF exposure. One logical conclusion from these data is that MFs may be acting in a synergistic manner on a pathway that has already been activated. Therefore, we suggest that MFs, rather than producing biological effects by a new pathway or mechanism of interaction, exert their effect(s) by interacting with already functioning reactions or pathways. If correct, the question of an MF's mechanism of interaction refocuses on how weak fields might enhance or depress a molecular reaction in progress, rather than on finding a new transduction pathway.