We recently demonstrated that human melanocyte proliferation and differentiation could be stimulated by endothelin (ET) derivatives via a receptor-mediated signal transduction pathway (Yada, Y., Higuchi, K., and Imokawa, G. (1991) J. Biol. Chem. 266, 18352-18357). We show here that the growth factors for human melanocytes are produced and secreted by the surrounding cells, namely human keratinocytes for ET-1 and Big-ET-1. Northern blots have revealed the presence of ET-1 gene transcripts in proliferating human keratinocytes. The ET-1 production by human keratinocytes increased after irradiation with ultraviolet B (UVB) in a dose-dependent manner, accompanied by the significant secretion of interleukin 1 alpha (IL-1 alpha). Among the cytokines related to UVB-induced cellular reactions and keratinocyte growth, only IL-1 alpha and -1 beta stimulated the secretion of ET-1 and Big-ET-1 but not of ET-3 and Big-ET-3 in a time-dependent manner. Northern blots for IL-1 alpha-stimulated or UVB-exposed human keratinocytes revealed that production of ET-1 gene transcripts markedly increased (by about 300 or 1,200%) with constant levels of beta-actin gene transcripts. In a parallel study, the medium conditioned by UVB-exposed human keratinocytes elicited a significant anti-ET-1 antibody-suppressible increase in DNA synthesis by cultured human melanocytes in a UV dose-dependent manner, which was associated with a marked and rapid (80 s) increase in the intracellular calcium level upon incubation with human melanocytes. These studies suggest that ETs produced and secreted by keratinocytes play an essential role in the maintenance of melanocyte proliferation and UV hyperpigmentation in the epidermis.