In cystic fibrosis (CF) airways, abnormal epithelial ion transport likely initiates mucus stasis, resulting in persistent airway infections and chronic inflammation. Mucus clearance is regulated, in part, by activation of apical membrane receptors coupled to intracellular calcium (Ca(2+)(i)) mobilization. We have shown that Ca(2+)(i) signals resulting from apical purinoceptor (P2Y(2)-R) activation are increased in CF compared with normal human airway epithelia. The present study addressed the mechanism for the larger apical P2Y(2)-R-dependent Ca(2+)(i) signals in CF human airway epithelia. We show that the increased Ca(2+)(i) mobilization in CF was not specific to P2Y(2)-Rs because it was mimicked by apical bradykinin receptor activation, and it did not result from a greater number of P2Y(2)-R or a more efficient coupling between P2Y(2)-Rs and phospholipase C-generated inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphate. Rather, the larger apical P2Y(2)-R activation-promoted Ca(2+)(i) signals in CF epithelia resulted from an increased density and Ca(2+) storage capacity of apically confined endoplasmic reticulum (ER) Ca(2+) stores. To address whether the ER up-regulation resulted from ER retention of misfolded DeltaF508 CFTR or was an acquired response to chronic luminal airway infection/inflammation, three approaches were used. First, ER density was studied in normal and CF sweat duct human epithelia expressing high levels of DeltaF508 CFTR, and it was found to be the same in normal and CF epithelia. Second, apical ER density was morphometrically analyzed in airway epithelia from normal subjects, DeltaF508 homozygous CF patients, and a disease control, primary ciliary dyskinesia; it was found to be greater in both CF and primary ciliary dyskinesia. Third, apical ER density and P2Y(2)-R activation-mobilized Ca(2+)(i), which were investigated in airway epithelia in a long term culture in the absence of luminal infection, were similar in normal and CF epithelia. To directly test whether luminal infection/inflammation triggers an up-regulation of the apically confined ER Ca(2+) stores, normal airway epithelia were chronically exposed to supernatant from mucopurulent material from CF airways. Supernatant treatment expanded the apically confined ER, resulting in larger apical P2Y(2)-R activation-dependent Ca(2+)(i) responses, which reproduced the increased Ca(2+)(i) signals observed in CF epithelia. In conclusion, the mechanism for the larger Ca(2+)(i) signals elicited by apical P2Y(2)-R activation in CF airway epithelia is an expansion of the apical ER Ca(2+) stores triggered by chronic luminal airway infection/inflammation. Greater ER-derived Ca(2+)(i) signals may provide a compensatory mechanism to restore, at least acutely, mucus clearance in CF airways.