UV irradiation induces in vitro and in vivo immunosuppression. Because mobilization of intracellular calcium ([Ca2+]i) represents a central step in cell activation and immune response, we investigated the effect of UV irradiation on Ca2+ homeostasis. Using indo-1 and cytofluorometry, [Ca2+]i kinetics in UVC- or UVB-exposed human peripheral blood leukocytes (PBL) and Jurkat cells were determined in parallel with functional assays. Increases in [Ca2+]i were observed within 2-3 h of irradiation; these increases were UV-dose dependent and reached maxima of 240% and 180% above baseline level (130 nM) for UVB and UVC, respectively. The UV-induced [Ca2+]i rise was predominantly due to influx of extracellular calcium, and it was more pronounced in T than in non-T cells. Concurrent with [Ca2+]i shifts following UV treatment, there was a loss of ability to respond to phytohemagglutinin (PHA) or to proliferate or stimulate in mixed leukocyte culture. This loss of function appeared to be related not only to UV-induced calcium shifts, but also to effects of UV irradiation on the plasma membrane. No [Ca2+]i mobilization was induced by gamma irradiation, and gamma-irradiated cells showed a normal [Ca2+]i increase in response to PHA. UV-induced Ca2+ flux into the cells was blocked by nifedipine. These data indicate that UV and gamma irradiation have different effects on lymphocyte membranes and suggest that a disruption of Ca2+ homeostasis may be involved in UV-induced lymphocyte inhibition. The data suggest, furthermore, the presence of Ca2+ channels in lymphocyte membranes that are sensitive to UV irradiation and Ca2+ channel blockers such as nifedipine.