Vascular calcification is a complex process that is dependent not only on the physicochemical effects of Ca, PO(4), and pH, but also on smooth muscle factors that may be regulated by these ions as well as by 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(3) (calcitriol) and parathyroid hormone (PTH). These minerals and hormones were tested in a model of medial calcification in rat aorta maintained in culture for 9 days. Calcification was quantitated as incorporation of (45)Ca, alkaline phosphatase activity was measured in aortic homogenates, and osteopontin production was measured from immunoblots of culture medium. At 1.8 mM Ca (1.46 mM free), calcification occurred at or above 2.8 mM PO(4). At 3.8 mM PO(4), calcification occurred at or above 1.10 mM free [Ca]. At a constant [Ca] x [PO(4)], calcification varied directly with [Ca] and inversely with [PO(4)]. Calcification was directly related to pH between 7.19 and 7.50 but not altered by PTH or calcitriol. Alkaline phosphatase activity and osteopontin production were increased by Ca, PO(4), calcitriol, and PTH. We conclude that calcification of rat aorta in vitro requires elevation of both [Ca] and [PO(4)], and that [Ca] rather than [PO(4)] or the product of the two is the dominant determinant. The induction of alkaline phosphatase and osteopontin indicates that Ca and PO(4) have effects in addition to simple physicochemical actions. Although PTH and calcitriol did not increase calcification in vivo, they have effects on smooth muscle that could influence calcification in vivo. Calcification is enhanced by alkalinity within the range produced during hemodialysis.