In this study, the recently identified human protein kinase C-theta (PKC-theta) isoform has been biochemically characterized in detail. An antiserum raised against the unique V3 domain of PKC-theta identified an 80-kDa protein in all human T-cell lines tested, in erythroleukemia K562 cells and in histiocytic lymphoma U-937 cells, but not in a B-lymphoma line (Raji) or in several melanoma, carcinoma, schwanoma or astrocytoma lines, confirming, at the protein level, its predominant expression in hematopoietic cell lines, in particular T cells. Immunoreactive PKC-theta was detected almost exclusively in the cytosolic compartment of unstimulated Jurkat T cells. Stimulation with phorbol ester, however, caused rapid translocation to the membrane. In order to compare the properties of PKC-theta with a representative member of the Ca(2+)-dependent PKC enzymes, full-length cDNAs encoding PKC-theta or PKC-alpha were transiently expressed in COS-1 cells, and recombinant enzymes were partially purified via a six-histidine peptide tag. The catalytic activity of these PKC enzymes was assayed against distinct substrates in the absence and presence of known PKC cofactors. Significant differences were found with respect to activation requirements and substrate preferences between PKC-theta and PKC-alpha. Both enzymes were stimulated by phospholipid and phorbol ester, and were active towards a PKC-derived substrate peptide corresponding to the pseudosubstrate site of PKC. In contrast to PKC-alpha, however, full activation of PKC-theta did not require Ca2+, and its basal activity towards histone H1 was not stimulated by lipid cofactors. Additionally, a myelin-basic-protein-(MBP)-derived peptide, which was readily phosphorylated by PKC-alpha, was a poor substrate for PKC-theta. Similar to PKC-alpha, transient PKC-theta overexpression in murine EL4 thymoma cells caused an approximately 2.5-fold increase in the phorbol-12-myristate-13-acetate-induced transcriptional activation of an interleukin-2 promoter-reporter gene construct. The unique expression and functional properties of PKC-theta suggest that it may play a specialized role in T-cell signaling pathways.