The regulatory action of activators for protein kinase C on the specific binding capacity for recombinant human tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) was studied on various human cell lines. Phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) and oleyl acetyl glycerol (OAG) both are able to rapidly downregulate TNF-binding capacity of normal and malignant cells derived from various tissues. As PMA treatment did not enhance internalization of TNF-alpha-receptor complexes at 37 degrees C, and since OAG was able to downregulate TNF-binding capacity under conditions where internalization and shedding of receptor protein are prevented, we conclude that protein kinase C controls ligand affinity of the TNF-receptor protein, possibly via direct phosphorylation. Protein kinase C triggered downregulation of TNF-alpha-binding capacity concomitantly resulted in reduction of TNF-alpha sensitivity, as revealed from decreased cytotoxic action of TNF-alpha on L 929 cells and from inhibition of TNF-alpha-mediated enhancement of HLA class II antigen expression in Colo 205 cells. Restoration of TNF-binding capacity upon abrogation of protein kinase C stimulation leads to full recovery of TNF responsiveness, further supporting the close linkage of TNF-receptor expression and TNF sensitivity. These data suggest that regulation of TNF-binding capacity by protein kinase C is one of the cellular control mechanisms of TNF responsiveness.