Phorbol ester-mediated differentiation of THP-1 cells (a human monocytic cell line) into mature macrophages is associated with a transcriptional induction of apolipoprotein E (apoE) expression. Endotoxin, on the other hand, which may also act through activation of protein kinase C, is a potent inhibitor of apoE expression in mouse macrophages. The present experiments examine the effect of phorbol ester, an activator of protein kinase C, on the apoE expression in mouse thioglycollate-elicited peritoneal macrophages. Phorbol ester inhibits apoE expression in a specific, time- and dose-dependent manner. A 75 % inhibition in the rate of apoE secretion, but not that of total protein, was observed following a 4.5h incubation with 160 nM phorbol ester, although nearly full inhibition was obtained with 40 nM. The changes in apoE secretion were paralleled by similar changes in apoE synthesis, indicating synthesis as the primary site of action. The decreased rates of apoE synthesis are shown not to be due to increased apoE degradation. The profound inhibition of apoE synthesis was not accompanied by significant changes in apoE mRNA levels at any concentration of phorbol ester (up to 16 μM), or length of treatment (up to 24 h), suggesting a post-transcriptional locus of regulation of apoE expression. Although the early changes in apoE synthesis correlate with increased microsomal protein kinase C activity, the suppression of apoE expression persists even during conditions of nearly complete ( > 95 %) loss of protein kinase C activity, suggesting that the direct or indirect effect of protein kinase C on apoE expression is mediated by a stable phosphorylated protein, or that the observed effects are mediated through a protein kinase C species that is not readily downregulated by phorbol esters. The presented studies clearly demonstrate the potential importance of the translational regulation of apoE expression through the protein kinase C signal transduction pathway.