Binding to, and activation of, protein kinase C (PKC) by phorbol ester (PE) tumor promoters may underlie their tumor-promoting activity. To study the effects of long-term PE treatment on regulation of cellular PKC, we adapted the human leukemic T cell line, Jurkat (JK), to continuous growth in the presence of PE. Such cells (JKPE) displayed loss of CD2 and CD3 cell surface molecules, known to play an important role in agonist-stimulated T cell activation, unresponsiveness to stimuli that induce interleukin 2 (IL2) receptor expression or IL2 production, change in the expression of several cell cycle-regulated genes, and a 6-fold reduction in cellular PKC enzymatic activity. This reduction was accompanied by the disappearance of a major approximately 82-kDa immunoreactive protein in JKPE cytosol when cell extracts were immunoblotted with a polyclonal anti-PKC peptide antibody cross-reactive with the PKC isoenzymes, alpha, beta, and gamma. Analysis with additional anti-peptide antibodies specific for alpha, beta, or gamma PKC indicated that all three types of PKC are expressed in JK cells; however, JKPE cells lost a major approximately 82 kDa immunoreactive cytosolic protein detectable with anti-PKC alpha antibody. In contrast, levels of expression and subcellular distribution of immunoreactive PKC beta and PKC gamma, as well as levels of mRNA specific for the three PKC isoenzymes, were not significantly affected by chronic PE treatment. These results indicate that PE-mediated reduction of PKC in JKPE cells is selective and occurs at the protein, not mRNA, level, and support the notion that distinct isoenzymes encoded by the PKC multigene family may be independently regulated. Moreover, the correlation between phenotypic and functional changes on one hand, and the selective reduction of PKC alpha on the other, raises the possibility that expression of CD2 and/or CD3 and functional activation in JKPE cells are preferentially regulated by PKC alpha.