Accumulating evidence suggests that extracellular nucleotides, signaling through P2 receptors, play a role in modulating bone cell function. ATP and ADP stimulate osteoclastic resorption, while ATP and UTP are powerful inhibitors of bone formation by osteoblasts. We investigated changes in the expression of P2 receptors with cell differentiation in primary osteoblast cultures. Rat calvarial osteoblasts, cultured for up to 10 days, were loaded with the intracellular Ca(2+)-sensing fluorophore, Fluo-4 AM, and a fluorescence imaging plate reader was used to measure responses to nucleotide agonists. Peak responses occurred within 20 s and were evoked by ATP or UTP at concentrations as low as 2 microM. Osteoblast number doubled between day 4 and 10 of culture, but the peak intracellular Ca(2+) response to ATP or UTP increased up to 6-fold over the same period, indicating that osteoblast responsiveness to nucleotides increases as cell differentiation proceeds. The approximate order of potency for the most active nucleotide agonists at day 8 of culture was ATP > UTP and ATPgammaS > ADP > UDP, consistent with the expression of functional P2Y(2), P2X(2), P2Y(4), P2Y(1) and P2Y(6) receptors. Smaller responses were elicited by 2-MeSATP, Bz-ATP and alpha,beta-meATP, additionally suggesting the presence of functional P2X(1), P2X(3), P2X(5) and P2X(7) receptors. Expression of mRNA for the ATP- and UTP-selective P2Y(2) receptor increased strongly between day 6 and 15 in primary rat osteoblasts, whereas mRNAs for the P2Y(4) (also ATP/UTP selective) and P2Y(6) (UDP/UTP selective) receptors were highly expressed at intermediate time points. In contrast, mRNA for the cell-proliferation-associated P2X(5) receptor decreased to undetectable as osteoblasts matured, but mRNA for the cell-death-associated P2X(7) receptor was detected at all time points. Similar trends were evident using immunostaining and Western blotting for P2 receptors. Exposure to 10 muM ATP or UTP during days 10-14 of culture was sufficient to cause near-total blockade of the 'trabecular' bone nodules formed by osteoblasts; however, UDP and ADP were without effect. Our results show that there is a shift from P2X to P2Y expression during differentiation in culture, with mature osteoblasts preferentially expressing the P2Y(2) receptor and to a lesser extent P2Y(4) and P2Y(6) receptors. Taken together, these data suggest that the P2Y(2) receptor, and possibly the P2Y(4) receptor, could function as 'off-switches' for mineralized bone formation.