Phosphorylation of connexin 32, the major liver gap-junction protein, was studied in purified liver gap junctions and in hepatocytes. In isolated gap junctions, connexin 32 was phosphorylated by cAMP-dependent protein kinase (cAMP-PK), by protein kinase C (PKC) and by Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (Ca2+/CaM-PK II). Connexin 26 was not phosphorylated by these three protein kinases. Phosphopeptide mapping of connexin 32 demonstrated that cAMP-PK and PKC primarily phosphorylated a seryl residue in a peptide termed peptide 1. PKC also phosphorylated seryl residues in additional peptides. CA2+/CaM-PK II phosphorylated serine and to a lesser extent, threonine, at sites different from those phosphorylated by the other two protein kinases. A synthetic peptide PSRKGSGFGHRL-amine (residues 228-239 based on the deduced amino acid sequence of rat connexin 32) was phosphorylated by cAMP-PK and by PKC, with kinetic properties being similar to those for other physiological substrates phosphorylated by these enzymes. Ca2+/CaM-PK II did not phosphorylate the peptide. Phosphopeptide mapping and amino acid sequencing of the phosphorylated synthetic peptide indicated that Ser233 of connexin 32 was present in peptide 1 and was phosphorylated by cAMP-PK or by PKC. In hepatocytes labeled with [32P]orthophosphoric acid, treatment with forskolin or 20-deoxy-20-oxophorbol 12,13-dibutyrate (PDBt) resulted in increased 32P-incorporation into connexin 32. Phosphopeptide mapping and phosphoamino acid analysis showed that a seryl residue in peptide 1 was most prominently phosphorylated under basal conditions. Treatment with forskolin or PDBt stimulated the phosphorylation of peptide 1. PDBt treatment also increased the phosphorylation of seryl residues in several other peptides. PDBt did not affect the cAMP-PK activity in hepatocytes. It has previously been shown that phorbol ester reduces dye coupling in several cell types, however in rat hepatocytes, dye coupling was not reduced by treatment with PDBt. Thus, activation of PKC may have differential effects on junctional permeability in different cell types; one source of this variability may be differences in the sites of phosphorylation in different gap-junction proteins.