We have investigated the changes in protein kinase C (PKC) activity after treatment of several cell lines with TNF. Binding studies with [3H]phorbol dibutyrate (PBt2) on whole cells revealed rapid and transient activation of PKC in Jurkat, K562, and U937 cells with a maximum of phorbol ester binding at 6 min after TNF treatment. As shown by Scatchard analysis, the TNF-induced increase of [3H]PBt2 binding reflected increments of phorbol ester binding site numbers rather than greater binding affinities. Upon subfractionation of TNF-treated U937 cells a transient increase of PBt2 binding in the membrane fraction was accompanied by a long term loss of PBt2-binding in the cytosol, indicating a TNF-induced translocation of PKC from the cytosol to the cell membrane. With histone III-S as a substrate, the determination of specific PKC activity revealed similar kinetics of PKC translocation in U937 cells. TNF also induced PKC translocation in K562 and Jurkat cells. However, although TNF caused long term down-regulation of cytosolic PKC activity in U937 cells, the cytosolic PKC activity only transiently decreased in both Jurkat and K562 cells and then recovered to near basal levels. In the human nonmalignant fibroblast cell line CCD18, PKC was not activated by TNF. Our data suggest that PKC activation may play a major role in TNF signal transduction in some, but not all target cells.