The tumour-promoting phorbol ester 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol 13-acetate (TPA) induces insulin secretion from isolated pancreatic islets, and this suggests a potential role for protein kinase C in the regulation of stimulus-secretion coupling in islets. In the present study, the hypothesis that the insulinotropic effect of TPA is mediated by activation of protein kinase C in pancreatic islets has been examined. TPA induced a gradual translocation of protein kinase C from the cytosol to a membrane-associated state which correlated with the gradual onset of insulin secretion. The pharmacologically inactive phorbol ester 4α-phorbol 12,13-didecanoate did not mimic this effect. TPA also induced a rapid time-dependent decline of total protein kinase C activity in islets and the appearance of a Ca2+- and phospholipid-independent protein kinase activity. Insulin secretion induced by TPA was completely suppressed (IC50 ~ 10 nM) by staurosporine, a potent protein kinase C inhibitor. Staurosporine also inhibited islet cytosolic protein kinase C activity at similar concentrations (IC50 ~ 2 nM). In addition, staurosporine partially (~ 60%) inhibited glucose-induced insulin secretion at concentrations (IC50 ~ 10 nM) similar to those required to inhibit TPA-induced insulin secretion, suggesting that staurosporine may act at a step common to both mechanisms, possibly the activation of protein kinase C. However, stimulatory concentrations of glucose did not induce down-regulation of translocation of protein kinase C, and the inhibition of glucose-induced insulin release by staurosporine was incomplete. Significant questions therefore remain unresolved as to the possible involvement of protein kinase C in glucose-induced insulin secretion.