The effects of phorbol esters were investigated on the survival of chick sympathetic neurons in a serum-free culture medium. The protein kinase C activator phorbol 12,13-dibutyrate (PDB) supported about 40% of the plated sympathetic neurons. This number was comparable to that supported by nerve growth factor (NGF). A combination of phorbol ester and NGF did not significantly increase the number of surviving neurons. Phorbol ester-supported sympathetic neurons possessed desipramine-sensitive [3H]-norepinephrine uptake mechanism, and therefore were noradrenegic in character. Two days after the start of cultures, if NGF was replaced by phorbol ester, or phorbol ester was replaced by NGF, the number of surviving sympathetic neurons was essentially the same in both groups, and the uptake of [3H]norepinephrine was also comparable when examined 2 days after the switchover. Interchangeability between phorbol ester and NGF in the survival of sympathetic neurons suggests that both agents act on the same subpopulation of neurons of the chick sympathetic ganglia. The protein kinase C activity of cytosol and particulate fractions of NGF-supported neurons was 0.14 and 0.09 pmol/min/mg protein, respectively. In phorbol ester-supported neurons the activity in the particulate fraction increased by about fivefold. Removal of the phorbol ester after 2 days resulted in restoration of the enzyme activity in less than 1 h, and readdition of the phorbol ester again increased the activity by fivefold. When NGF was added to these neurons (1 microgram for 15 min), there was no change in the enzyme activity. Phorbol 13-acetate was ineffective in supporting sympathetic neurons in culture, as well as in enhancing protein kinase C activity. We also compared the protein kinase C activity of sympathetic neurons supported in culture by NGF and excess potassium (35 mM K+) Neurons supported in culture by 35 mM K+ for 2 days had almost eightfold more protein kinase C activity in their particulate fraction than in cytosol fraction. In NGF-supported neurons were acutely treated with excess K+, the protein kinase C activity was increased in the particulate fraction by about sevenfold in a concentration- and time-dependent manner. Excess K+ plus phorbol ester did not produce an additive effect on protein kinase C activity. PDB and excess K+ had no effect on cyclic AMP content of sympathetic neurons. In summary, the present data suggest that the neurotrophic action of PDB and excess K+ is probably mediated through protein kinase C.