The L-myc protein migrates as three distinct differentially phosphorylated bands in sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE). This phosphorylation can be rapidly increased either by treatment with the protein kinase C (PKC) activator phorbol ester 12-O-tetradecanoyl-phorbol-13-acetate (TPA) or by inhibition of serine/threonine protein phosphatases with okadaic acid. In vitro mutagenesis and phosphoamino acid analyses define the N-terminal serine residues 38 and 42 of L-myc as critical targets for the PKC-dependent phosphorylation. These are the exclusive sites of phosphorylation in the N-terminal third of the L-myc protein, and can be phosphorylated in vitro by glycogen synthase kinase 3 beta (GSK-3 beta). A mutant L-myc protein in which these serines have been replaced by alanine residues does not show heterogeneous electrophoretic migration or hyperphosphorylation in response to PKC activation, and is not a substrate for GSK-3 beta in vitro. Similar potential phosphorylation sites are present in c-myc and N-myc in a highly conserved region thought to represent a transcriptional activation domain. We suggest that N-terminal phosphorylation of the L-myc protein is a means of rapid regulation of this oncoprotein, possibly mediated in vivo by the action of GSK-3.