The effects of the alpha-adrenergic agonist phenylephrine on the levels of adenosine 3':5'-monophosphate (cAMP) and the activity of the cAMP-dependent protein kinase in isolated rat liver parenchymal cells were studied. Cyclic AMP was very slightly (5 to 13%) increased in cells incubated with phenylephrine at a concentration (10(-5) M) which was maximally effective on glycogenolysis and gluconeogenesis. However, the increase was significant only at 5 min. Cyclic AMP levels with 10(-5) M phenylephrine measured at this time were reduced by the beta-adrenergic antagonist propranolol, but were unaffected by the alpha-blocker phenoxybenzamine, indicating that the elevation was due to weak beta activity of the agonist. When doses of glucagon, epinephrine, and phenylephrine which produced the same stimulation of glycogenolysis or gluconeogenesis were added to the same batches of cells, there were marked rises in cAMP with glucagon, minimal increases with epinephrine, and little or no changes with phenylephrine, indicating that the two catecholamine stimulated these processes largely by mechanisms not involving cAMP accumulation. DEAE-cellulose chromatography of homogenates of liver cells revealed two major peaks of cAMP-dependent protein kinase activity. These eluted at similar salt concentrations as the type I and II isozymes from rat heart. Optimal conditions for preservation of hormone effects on the activity of the enzyme in the cells were determined. High concentrations of phenylephrine (10(-5) M and 10(-4) M) produced a small increase (10 tp 16%) in the activity ratio (-cAMP/+cAMP) of the enzyme. This was abolished by propranolol, but not by phenoxybenzamine, indicating that it was due to weak beta activity of the agonist. The increase in the activity ratio of the kinase with 10(-5) M phenylephrine was much smaller than that produced by a glycogenolytically equivalent dose of glucagon. The changes in protein kinase induced by phenylephrine and the blockers and by glucagon were thus consistent with those in cAMP. Theophylline and 1-methyl-3-isobutylxanthine, which inhibit cAMP phosphodiesterase, potentiated the effects of phenylephrine on glycogenolysis and gluconeogenesis. The potentiations were blocked by phenoxybenzamine, but not by propranolol. Methylisobutylxanthine increased the levels of cAMP and enhanced the activation of protein kinase in cells incubated with phenylephrine. These effects were diminished or abolished by propanolol, but were unaffected by phenoxybenzamine. It is concluded from these data that alpha-adrenergic activation of glycogenolysis and gluconeogenesis in isolated rat liver parenchymal cells occurs by mechanisms not involving an increase in total cellular cAMP or activation of the cAMP-dependent protein kinase. The results also show that phosphodiesterase inhibitors potentiate alpha-adrenergic actions in hepatocytes mainly by a mechanism(s) not involving a rise in cAMP.