The number of transferrin receptors in thioglycollate-elicited murine peritoneal macrophages is markedly depressed after exposure to murine gamma-interferon (IFN gamma) in vitro. This change has been used as a model system to study the molecular and cellular mechanisms of IFN gamma signal transduction. We observed that the downshift of the transferrin receptor could be mimicked by exposure to the calcium ionophore (A23187) or the potent tumor promoter, phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA). Saturation binding studies on thioglycollate (TG)-elicited peritoneal macrophages after exposure to A23187 or PMA showed the reduced expression of transferrin binding activity attributable to a decrease in the total number of cellular transferrin receptors and not an alteration in receptor-ligand affinity, in agreement with previous results obtained after exposure to IFN gamma. The loss of transferrin receptors in response to A23187 or PMA was dose dependent, and the kinetics of the change were identical to those observed with IFN gamma treatment. Phorbol 12,13-dibutyrate or 4-beta-phorbol 12,13-didecanoate, both biologically active phorbol esters, also induced reduced expression of transferrin receptors, whereas nonesterified phorbol or 4-alpha-phorbol 12,13-didecanoate, an inactive phorbol ester, had no effect on transferrin receptor expression. Finally, PMA and A23187, when used together, acted cooperatively to modulate transferrin receptor expression when both agents were present at subthreshold concentrations. These results, taken together, suggest that elevation of intracellular Ca++ levels and/or stimulation of protein kinase C are involved in the response of macrophages to IFN gamma.