Protein kinase C (PKC) is a ubiquitous enzyme linked to transmembrane signal transduction. It regulates agonist-mediated activation of intracellular events that result in growth and differentiation in a variety of cells and tissues. PKC is the cellular receptor for phorbol ester tumor promoters, such as 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA), that bind to, and directly activate, this enzyme. Vitamin A analogs (retinoids) have been known to antagonize biologic effects of phorbol esters, e.g., promotion of skin tumor formation; however, the exact mechanism(s) of this action is not clear. To analyze the effects of retinoids on T-cell-derived PKC, we partially purified the enzyme from human leukemic T cells (Jurkat) and examined the effects of different vitamin A analogs on its activity. Furthermore, the regulatory effects of retinoids on PKC activity were compared with those of common membrane phospholipids. Retinal inhibited PKC activation induced by TPA, as well as by diacylglycerol, the physiologic activator of PKC. The observed inhibition resulted from competition with phospholipid (phosphatidylserine) and was selective for the phospholipid-dependent C kinase; cAMP-dependent protein kinase, which is phospholipid-independent, was not affected by retinal. The inhibitory effect of retinal on PKC activity was similar to that of phosphatidylcholine. Retinoic acid, in contrast to retinal, induced a Ca2+-dependent activation of PKC, thus substituting for phosphatidylserine. Furthermore, PKC activation by retinoic acid was similar to that by phosphatidylserine, the natural phospholipid cofactor, in that both could be inhibited by phosphatidylcholine and augmented by phosphatidylinositol. The inhibition or activation of PKC by retinal or retinoic acid, respectively, was independent of whether the terminal aldehyde (retinal) or carboxyl (retinoic acid) groups were in the trans or cis configuration. Other vitamin A analogs tested did not affect PKC activity. The results demonstrate that different retinoids and phospholipids may have positive or negative cooperativity in PKC activation, thereby regulating its enzymatic activity and affecting the resulting intracellular activation events. These findings suggest that at least part of the biologic effects of retinoids in general, and their modulation of T-cell function in particular, may be mediated via the influence of their intracellular metabolites on PKC, and that this mechanism may account for some of the antagonistic effects of retinoids on TPA-mediated responses in cells.