Vascular calcification, which contributes to cardiovascular disease in patients with uremic hyperphosphatemia, is associated with vascular cell expression of osteogenic genes, including bone morphogenetic protein (BMP)-2 and osteopontin (OPN). High inorganic phosphate levels in vitro stimulate the osteogenic conversion of smooth muscle cells; however, the mechanism governing this is not clear. We found that high-phosphate medium increased the expression of BMP-2 and OPN in mouse smooth muscle cells in culture. However, this effect was lost in the presence of the mineralization inhibitor, pyrophosphate, suggesting a contribution of calcium phosphate crystals. Addition of 1-2 mmol/l phosphate alone to growth medium was sufficient to induce nanosized crystals after 1 day at 37 °C. Isolated crystals were about 160 nm in diameter and had a calcium to phosphate ratio of 1.35, consistent with the hydroxyapatite precursor octacalcium phosphate. Nanocrystal formation increased fourfold in the absence of serum, was blocked by fetuin-A, and was dependent on time and on the concentrations of phosphate and calcium. Purified synthetic hydroxyapatite nanocrystals and isolated high-phosphate-induced nanocrystals, but not nanocrystal-free high-phosphate medium, also induced BMP-2 and OPN. Thus, our results suggest that BMP-2 and OPN are induced by calcium phosphate nanocrystals, rather than soluble phosphate. This mechanism may contribute, in part, to hyperphosphatemia-related vascular cell differentiation and calcification.