Maturation of human myeloid cells is associated with quantitative and qualitative changes in protein kinase C (PKC) and increases in N-formyl-L-methionyl-L-leucyl-L-phenylalanine (FMLP) receptors, actin, and actin regulatory proteins. We have studied the actin responses and cell shape changes caused by FMLP and its second messenger pathways in HL60 cells undergoing neutrophilic maturation. In uninduced cells, the PKC activators 12-O-tetradecanoyl phorbol-13-acetate (TPA), bryostatin, and 1-oleyl-2-acetylglycerol (OAG) resulted in 15% to 30% decreases in F-actin, whereas FMLP had no effect. Ionomycin had no effect on actin but did cause a 10-fold increase in intracellular calcium. Cells grown for 24 hours in 1% dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) acquired the ability to polymerize actin in response to FMLP and ionomycin. TPA continued to cause a decrease in F-actin at 24 hours, but caused an increase in F-actin at 48 to 72 hours of maturation. The PKC inhibitor 1-5-isoquinolinesulfonyl 2-methylpiperazine (H7) partially blocked the F-actin increase caused by TPA in induced cells, but had no effect on the decrease in F-actin caused by TPA in uninduced cells or the increase in F-actin seen in FMLP-treated neutrophils. F-actin rich pseudopods developed following TPA or FMLP stimulation of induced HL60 cells; in uninduced cells neither agent caused pseudopod formation but TPA caused a dramatic loss of surface ruffles. The ability of FMLP and ionomycin to elicit a neutrophil-like actin response in HL60 cells within 24 hours after DMSO treatment shows that the actin regulatory mechanism is mature by that time. The inability of ionomycin to increase F-actin in uninduced cells supports the view that calcium increases alone are insufficient for actin polymerization. The longer maturation time required for HL60 cells to develop an actin polymerization response to TPA compared with FMLP, coupled with the inability of H7 to block the FMLP-mediated F-actin increase in neutrophils, suggests that the F-actin increase caused by FMLP is not mediated solely by PKC. Lastly, the TPA-induced F-actin decrease and shape changes in uninduced HL60 cells, and the longer time required for a ''mature'' response to TPA, may reflect immaturity in the PKC isoenzyme pattern rather than immaturity of the actin regulatory mechanism.