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Extracellular calcium concentrations (Cao) > 0.1 mM are required for the differentiation of normal human keratinocytes in culture. Increments in Cao result in acute and sustained increases in the intracellular calcium level (Cai), postulated to involve both a release of calcium from intracellular stores and a subsequent increase in calcium influx through nonspecific cation channels. The sustained rise in Cai appears to be necessary for keratinocyte differentiation. To understand the mechanism by which keratinocytes respond to Cao, we measured the acute effects of Cao on Cai and calcium influx in keratinocytes at various stages of differentiation. We then demonstrated the existence of the calcium receptor (CaR) in keratinocytes and determined the effect of calcium-induced differentiation on its mRNA levels. Finally, we examined the role of Cai in regulating both the initial rise in Cai after the switch to higher Cao and the activity of the nonspecific cation channel through which calcium influx occurs. Our data indicate that the acute Cai response to Cao is lost as the cells differentiate and increase their basal Cai. These data correlated with the decrease in CaR mRNA levels in cells grown in low calcium. However, calcium influx as measured by 45Ca uptake increased with differentiation in 1.2mM calcium, consistent with the increase in CaR mRNA in these cells as well as the calcium-induced opening of the nonspecific cation channels. We conclude that the keratinocyte contains a CaR that regulates both the initial release of Cai from intracellular stores and the subsequent increase in calcium flux through nonspecific calcium channels. A rising level of Cai may turn off the release of calcium from intracellular stores while potentiating the influx through the nonspecific cation channels. Differentiation of keratinocytes appears to increase the CaR, which may facilitate the maintenance of the high Cai required for differentiation.