A two-dimensional intracellular Ca(2+) ([Ca(2+)](i)) imaging system was used to examine the relationship between [Ca(2+)](i) handling and the proliferation of MC3T3-E1 osteoblast-like cells. The resting [Ca(2+)](i) level in densely cultured cells was 1.5 times higher than the [Ca(2+)](i) level in sparsely cultured cells or in other cell types (mouse fibroblasts, rat vascular smooth muscle cells, and bovine endothelial cells). A high resting [Ca(2+)](i) level may be specific for MC3T3-E1 cells. MC3T3-E1 cells were stimulated with ATP (10 microM), caffeine (10 mM), thapsigargin (1 microM), or ionomycin (10 microM), and the effect on the [Ca(2+)](i) level of MC3T3-E1 cells was studied. The percentage of responding cells and the degree of [Ca(2+)](i) elevation were high in the sparsely cultured cells and low in densely cultured cells. The rank order for the percentage of responding cells and magnitude of the Ca(2+) response to the stimuli was ionomycin > thapsigargin = ATP > caffeine and suggests the existence of differences among the various [Ca(2+)](i) channels. All Ca(2+) responses in the sparsely cultured MC3T3-E1 cells, unlike in other cell types, disappeared after the cells reached confluence. Heptanol treatment of densely cultured cells restored the Ca(2+) response, suggesting that cell-cell contact is involved with the confluence-dependent disappearance of the Ca(2+) response. Immunohistological analysis of type 1 inositol trisphosphate receptors and electron microscopy showed distinct expression of inositol trisphosphate receptor proteins and smooth-surfaced endoplasmic reticulum in sparsely cultured cells but reduced levels in densely cultured cells. These results indicate that the underlying basis of confluence-dependent [Ca(2+)](i) regulation is down-regulation of smooth-surfaced endoplasmic reticulum by cell-cell contacts.