The migration of retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells is an important step in various pathologic conditions, including subretinal neovascularization (SRN) and proliferative vitreoretinopathy (PVR). Therefore, elucidation of the mechanism of RPE migration may be useful in devising effective treatment for these disorders. Since protein kinase C (PKC) has been shown to regulate the migration of other cell types, we studied the effects of PKC agonists and antagonists on RPE migration. We used an in vitro wound healing model in which a small area of a confluent monolayer of bovine RPE cells was denuded with a razor blade. The cultures were subsequently incubated with agents known to stimulate [phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA)] or inhibit (calphostin C, staurosporine) PKC. After 20 hr, migration was measured as the number of cells that had entered the denuded area. We also measured the translocation of PKC from the cytosol to the membrane in order to determine the activation or inhibition of PKC by PMA and calphostin C in the cells. The phorbol ester PMA stimulated migration by 41%, and calphostin C and staurosporine inhibited migration by 38% and 31%, respectively, in a medium supplemented with 10% serum. To determine the requirement for serum in this modulation, we also measured the effects of PMA and calphostin C on RPE migration in serum-free medium. Under these conditions, basal migration was greatly decreased, but PMA stimulated migration by 177% and calphostin C inhibited migration by 93%. Since PKC modulation is known to induce the proliferation of cells, we also tested the effects of these agents on growth-inhibited migration by pretreating the cells with the antiproliferative drug mitomycin C. We found that modulation of PKC under these conditions equally affected growth-inhibited and growth-dependent migration. Therefore, based on the increase in RPE migration induced by a PKC agonist, and the decrease in migration caused by PKC antagonists, it is suggested that PKC-mediated signal transduction plays a crucial role in RPE cell migration. This knowledge may be useful in devising effective treatments for SRN and PVR.