Calcium (Ca(2+)) has long been recognized as a physiologically indispensable ion owing to its numerous intra- and extracellular roles. More recently, it has become apparent that extracellular calcium (Ca(2+)(o)) also serves as an extracellular first messenger following the cloning of a Ca(2+)(o)-sensing receptor (CaR) that belongs to the superfamily of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCR). The CaR probably functions as a dimer in performing its central role of "sensing" minute alterations in Ca(2+)(o) and adjusting the secretion of parathyroid hormone (PTH) so as to normalize Ca(2+)(o) through the actions of PTH on the effector elements of the mineral ion homeostatic system (e.g., kidney, bone and intestine). Several inherited human conditions are caused by inactivating or activating mutations of this receptor, and mice have been generated with targeted disruption of the CaR gene. Characteristic changes in the functions of parathyroid and kidney in patients with these conditions and in CaR-deficient mice have proven the physiological importance of the CaR in mineral ion homeostasis. An accumulating body of evidence, however, suggests that the CaR also plays numerous roles outside the realm of systemic mineral ion homeostasis. The receptor regulates processes such as cellular proliferation and differentiation, secretion, membrane polarization and apoptosis in a variety of tissues/cells. Finally, the availability of specific "calcimimetic", allosteric CaR activators - which are currently in clinical trials - will probably have therapeutic implications for diseases caused by malfunction of the CaR in tissues not only within, but also outside, the mineral ion homeostatic system.