Three monoclonal antibodies (mAb) directed against the regulatory domain of the protein kinase C gamma (PKC gamma); 15G4, 5A2 and 36G9, were shown to display distinct properties with respect to PKC gamma kinase activity [Cazaubon, S., Marais, R., Parker, P. & Strosberg, A.D. (1989) Eur. J. Biochem. 182, 401-406]. The mAb 5A2 and 36G9, which act as potent inhibitors of the cofactor-dependent kinase activity, can no longer bind PKC gamma in the presence of phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylserine/phorbol ester, respectively; 15G4 binding is not influenced by effectors. Due to this functional relationship between the inhibitory mAb- and cofactor-binding sites, we sought to localize the mAb epitopes with respect to the functional sites of PKC gamma. For this purpose, several deletions were introduced at the 5' end of the PKC gamma cDNA and the mutant proteins were expressed in Escherichia coli. The determination of the immunoreactivity of the deleted PKC gamma proteins shows that the amino acid residues essential to the binding of 5A2 and 36G9 are directly adjacent to the second cysteine-rich motif: these are contained in the sequences at positions 151-163 and 164-197, respectively. In addition, various deletions around the C1 region of the regulatory domain allowed the identification of the second cysteine-rich motif as a functional binding site for phorbol dibutyrate. These deletion studies thus demonstrate that the epitopes recognized by the inhibitory mAbs 5A2 and 36G9 are distinct from the cofactor-binding sites. This suggests that the binding of phosphatidylserine and phorbol ester induce conformational changes in the regulatory domain of PKC, which are thus responsible for the loss of the 5A2 and 36G9 immunoreactivity of the native protein. In this conformational state, PKC gamma conserves its ability to interact with the non-inhibitory mAb 15G4. By using synthetic peptides, the 15G4 epitope was localized to the sequence 297-310 in the V3 variable region. This indicates that the flexibility of the V3 region, which delimits the C-terminus of the regulatory domain, may not be necessary for the allosteric activation of PKC. In view of these results, we propose that PKC activation by its cofactors results in intramolecular changes which allow the enzyme to bind exogenous substrates.