We have examined the presence of protein kinase C in oocytes of Chaetopterus pergamentaceus and its role in the initiation of germinal vesicle breakdown (GVBD). First, we demonstrated that the oocytes contain a phospholipid- and calcium-dependent protein kinase, protein kinase C (PKC). Since PKC is the primary intracellular receptor for phorbol esters, we tested the ability of phorbol 12,13-dibutyrate (PDBu) to induce GVBD and compared several critical events and processes involved in GVBD induced by PDBu to those induced normally (by seawater). Seawater and 100-200 nM PDBu induced chromosome condensation, spindle formation, and spindle migration over a similar time course. Both treatments induced similar alterations in the SDS-PAGE pattern of newly synthesized proteins. The synthesis of polypeptides of approximately 46 and 54 kDa increased specifically. Both treatments increased oocyte protein phosphorylation, especially of proteins of 22, 32, 46, 55, 64, and 84 kDa. Both treatments resulted in the activation of an M-phase-specific histone H1 kinase activity, which demonstrates the appearance of maturation-promoting factor. Staurosporine, a potent protein kinase C inhibitor, blocked GVBD and the activation of M-phase-specific H1 kinase, whereas HA1004, which preferentially antagonizes protein kinase A, had no effect. The results of this study demonstrate that protein kinase C can activate a wide spectrum of essential biochemical and morphological processes involved in GVBD. Further, these studies suggest that protein kinase C elicits GVBD by activating maturation-promoting factor and support the hypothesis that protein kinase C plays an essential role in oocyte maturation in this species. © 1992.