We have examined whether melanin affects Ca2+ homeostasis in cultured normal human melanocytes. Intracellular Ca2+ concentrations ([Ca2+]i), were measured in four Caucasian and in three Negroid melanocyte cultures. Under resting conditions [Ca2+]i was around 100 nM in all cultures, but differences between cells within cultures were observed. All cultures responded to endothelin-1 (ET-1) with increases in [Ca2+]i and there were no differences between Caucasian and Negroid cultures. However, large differences in responses between cells within cultures were observed, indicating that melanocyte cultures are very heterogeneous. The addition of 2.5 mM CaCl2 to melanocytes kept in Ca2+-free medium resulted in rapid and transient increases in [Ca2+]i of up to 1500 nM. These increases were on average more than two times smaller in melanocyte cultures established from Negroid donors compared with Caucasian cultures. In addition, well melanized Caucasian melanocytes, cultured in the presence of 400 microM tyrosine and 10 mM NH4Cl, showed a reduced increase in cytoplasmic Ca2+ concentration upon the addition of extracellular Ca2+. The difference in maintaining Ca2+ homeostasis between poorly and well melanized melanocytes may be the result of the clearance of cytoplasmic Ca2+ into melanosomes and the greater capacity for this in the more pigmented melanocytes.