The vitamin D endocrine system plays an essential role in calcium homeostasis and bone metabolism, but research during the past two decades has revealed a diverse range of biological actions that include induction of cell differentiation, inhibition of cell growth, immunomodulation, and control of other hormonal systems. Vitamin D itself is a prohormone that is metabolically converted to the active metabolite, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D [1,25(OH)(2)D]. This vitamin D hormone activates its cellular receptor (vitamin D receptor or VDR), which alters the transcription rates of target genes responsible for the biological responses. This review focuses on several recent developments that extend our understanding of the complexities of vitamin D metabolism and actions: the final step in the activation of vitamin D, conversion of 25-hydroxyvitamin D to 1,25(OH)(2)D in renal proximal tubules, is now known to involve facilitated uptake and intracellular delivery of the precursor to 1alpha-hydroxylase. Emerging evidence using mice lacking the VDR and/or 1alpha-hydroxylase indicates both 1,25(OH)(2)D(3)-dependent and -independent actions of the VDR as well as VDR-dependent and -independent actions of 1,25(OH)(2)D(3). Thus the vitamin D system may involve more than a single receptor and ligand. The presence of 1alpha-hydroxylase in many target cells indicates autocrine/paracrine functions for 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) in the control of cell proliferation and differentiation. This local production of 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) is dependent on circulating precursor levels, providing a potential explanation for the association of vitamin D deficiency with various cancers and autoimmune diseases.