Iron-transferrin (FeTF) is an essential growth factor required for proliferation of lymphoid cells. FeTF activates protein kinase C (PKC) in the lymphoblastoid T-cell line, CCRF-CEM. We have treated CEM cells with human FeTF, then examined levels of PKC mRNA by hybridization analysis using cDNA probes specific for alpha-, beta-, and gamma-PKC subspecies. CEM cell mRNA hybridized with the beta-subspecies probe but not with probes for alpha- or gamma-subspecies. After exposure to FeTF an increase in PKC-beta mRNA was detectable at 10 minutes, peaked at 12 hours, and was sustained for 72 hours. Nuclear transcription assays demonstrated that rates of PKC-beta mRNA transcription were increased in FeTF-treated cells. By contrast, steady state levels of PKC-beta mRNA did not increase after treatment of cells with apotransferrin or gallium TF. Similarly, treatment with soluble iron as ferric ammonium citrate did not increase steady state levels of PKC-beta mRNA, despite producing a marked increase in cellular ferritin content. Ferritin increased from a baseline value of 63 ng/10(6) cells to 98 and 100 ng/10(6) cells in CEM cells treated for 1 hour with ferric ammonium citrate or FeTF, respectively. FeTF did not increase cytoplasmic-free calcium in CEM cells loaded with fura-2, indicating that binding of FeTF to transferrin receptors did not open membrane Ca2+ channels or release intracellular Ca2+. In addition, pretreatment of cells with desferrioxamine, but not ferrioxamine, blocked the FeTF-induced increase in PKC-beta transcripts. Therefore, iron as FeTF (not soluble iron or nonferric TF) stimulates transcription of the CEM cell PKC-beta gene. Transcriptional rate of the PKC-beta gene does not correlate with cellular iron content as judged by ferritin measurements. Furthermore, the requirement for FeTF does not appear to reflect activation of a classic agonist pathway as judged by stable cellular Ca2+. These data suggest that delivery of iron by FeTF to one or more specific cellular compartments may stimulate PKC-beta gene transcription in CEM cells.