Tumor promotion/progression is known to be due in part to increased signaling through a variety of mitogenic pathways, including protein kinase C (PKC). To determine whether increased PKC activity could play a role in promotion and progression of renal cancer, we monitored PKC activity in normal and progressively transformed renal neoplasias from Eker rats. Eker rats carry a defect in the tumor suppressor TSC2 gene that predisposes them to renal carcinoma, whereas additional factors influence tumor promotion/progression in accordance with a "two-hit" model. We used the phosphorylation of adducins at Ser-660, a known PKC phosphorylation site, as a reporter for endogenous PKC activity. In normal proximal tubules, total adducin levels (measured with a phosphorylation state-insensitive antibody) were relatively high, whereas pSer660-adducin (measured with a phosphorylation state-sensitive antibody) levels were very low. In comparison, in renal carcinomas, total adducin levels were decreased, and pSer-660-adducin levels were increased. Changes in phosphorylation correlated with changes in localization. In normal tissue, alpha- and gamma-adducin are targeted to the apical and basal membranes of proximal tubules, respectively, implying unique functions for these related proteins. In early lesions (atypical tubules), differential targeting is lost, and both alpha- and gamma-adducins localize to the basal membrane. In more advanced lesions, staining in lateral membranes at cell-cell contacts becomes apparent. Furthermore, in cells that have lost basement membrane contact, plasma membrane targeting is no longer apparent. These changes in adducin expression levels, phosphorylation state, and localization parallel the increased growth potential and dedifferentiation of the progressive tumor phenotypes. These data demonstrate the utility of phosphorylation state-selective antibodies in immunohistochemical applications as reporters of endogenous PKC activity in tissue samples. We also provide the first evidence that increased PKC activity and phosphorylation of important target proteins occurs during progressive transformation in a non-phorbol ester tumor promotion model in vivo.