C-occolithophoridae, a group of mostly unicellular algae, possess a cell wall containing calcified plates, called coccoliths. The coccoliths from the species Emilania huxleyi (Lohmann) Kamptner contain a water-soluble acid polysaccharide. In this paper we describe the isolation and some characteristic properties of the polysaccharide, in particular its Ca2+ -binding capacity. A large-scale cultivation of the Coccolithophoridae was worked out and a new procedure for isolating coccoliths was developed. The polysaccharide obtained from the coccoliths contained two types of monobasic acid groups in a total amount of 1.8 mumol/mg polysaccharide. One type consisted of weakly acid groups which were identified as uronic acids. The nature of the stronger acid groups remains to be established. The ratio between the respective groups was 1:0.8. Studies with 45Ca2+ demonstrated that the isolated polysaccharide is capable of binding Ca2+. Equilibrium dialysis revealed that the maximum amount of Ca2+ which can be bound in 0.92 +/- 0.05 mumol/mg polysaccharide. Flow-rate dialysis experiments strongly suggested the presence of two classes of Ca2+ -binding sites differing in affinity for Ca2+. High-affinity sites (dissociation constant Kd for Ca2+ :2.2 +/- 1.0 X 10(-5) M) were found to be present in amounts (0.38 +/- 0.04 mumol/mg polysaccharide) approximately equivalent to the strongly acid monovalent groups mentioned above (0.8 mumol/mg polysaccharide). Low-affinity sites (Kd for Ca2+: -11 +/- 39 X 10(-5) M) were estimated at 0.74 +/- 0.11 mumol/mg polysaccharide. Although this figure could be determined less accurately, it is suggested that the uronic acids (1.0 mumol/mg polysaccharide) are identical to the low-affinity sites. Preferential binding of Ca2+ occurred in a 100-fold excess of Na+ and Mg2+ as was shown by gel filtration. A 100-fold excess of Sr2+ inhibited Ca2+ binding to a great extent while no Ca2+ was bound in the presence of an equimolar amount of La3+. The dissociation constants of the high-affinity sites for Na+, Mg2+, Sr2+ and La3+ (in the presence of Ca2+) were determined with the flow-rate dialysis technique. They confirm the order of binding preference found with gel filtration. A polysaccharide with similar properties could be isolated from subfossil coccoliths of E. hyxleyi (about 1000 years old). The possible role of the polysaccharide as a heterogeneous matrix in coccolith formation is discussed.