Treatment of human HL-60 leukemic cells with 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol- 13-acetate (TPA) is associated with activation of protein kinase C (PKC) and induction of monocytic differentiation. An HL-60 variant cell line, termed HL-525, derived from long-term exposure to TPA (Homma et al, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 83: 7316, 1986) is resistant to TPA-induced differentiation and displays decreased PKC beta expression compared with the HL-60 parent line. However, this variant exhibits features of granulocytic differentiation, including nitroblue tetrazolium reduction, when exposed to all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA). Whereas treatment of HL-525 cells with ATRA or TPA alone had no effect on features of monocytic differentiation, these agents in combination resulted in cellular adhesion, nonspecific esterase staining, and induction of the c-fms (monocyte growth factor receptor) gene. In order to measure PKC expression associated with the reversal of TPA resistance by ATRA, we exposed HL-525 cells to ATRA and analyzed PKC- mRNA and protein levels. Exposure of HL-525 cells to ATRA for 3 days resulted in induction of PKC beta transcripts, whereas there was little change in PKC alpha mRNA levels. ATRA treatment was also associated with an increase in PKC activity and an induction of cytosolic PKC beta protein levels. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that ATRA reverses TPA resistance in HL-525 cells by enhancing the expression of PKC.