Since the precise role of sarcoplasmic reticular Ca2+ in mediating vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMC) proliferation is unknown, the effect of pre-incubation with thapsigargin on extracellular signal regulated kinase (ERK) activation, the translocation of activated of ERK 1/2 to the nucleus, cyclin D1 expression, the onset of S phase and cytosolic Ca2+ levels were studied. Human saphenous vein VSMCs (hVSMC) were incubated with 10 nM thapsigargin for 24 h followed by stimulation with fetal calf serum and the activation of ERK1/2 and cyclin D1 assessed by western blotting, the intracellular distribution of ERK1/2 using indirect immunofluorescence, the onset of S-phase with the incorporation of bromodeoxyuridine and sarcoplasmic reticular Ca2+ status using FURA-2. Thapsigargin had a marginal effect on ERK1/2 activation only at 5 min and 10 min after stimulation with fetal calf serum. In contrast, the rapid translocation of ERK1/2 to the nucleus was completely blocked by thapsigargin. S phase was delayed by 8 h by thapsigargin which co-incided with the recovery of cytosolic Ca2+ levels and cyclin D1 expression. It is concluded that the inhibitory effect of thapsigargin (depletion of Ca2+ pools) on hVSMC replication is mediated through the inhibition of translocation of activated ERK1/2 to the nucleus and not to the phosphorylation of ERK, per se, which in turn prevents cyclin D1 expression and thus progression of the cell cycle.