TRPM7 channels are implicated in cellular survival, proliferation, and differentiation. However, a profile of TRPM7 activity in a specific cell type has not been determined from embryonic to terminally differentiated state. Here, we characterized TRPM7 expression in a spectrum of rat liver cells at different developmental stages. Using the whole-cell patch clamp technique, TRPM7-like Na(+) currents were identified in RLC-18 cells, a differentiated, proliferating hepatocellular line derived from day 17 embryonic rat liver. Currents were outwardly rectifying, enhanced in divalent-free solutions, and inhibited by intracellular Mg(2+). Reverse transcription - polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) revealed that RLC-18 cells express both TRPM6 and TRPM7. However, mean currents were reduced almost 80% by 1 mmol/L 2-aminoethoxyphenylborate (2-APB) and were abolished in RLC-18 cells heterologously expressing a dominant negative TRPM7 construct, suggesting that TRPM7 is the major current carrier in these cells. Functional comparison showed that relative to terminally differentiated adult rat hepatocytes, currents were 1.8 and 3.9 times higher in, respectively, RLC-18 and WIF-B cells, a rat hepatoma - human fibroblast cross. Our results demonstrate that plasma membrane TRPM7 channels are more highly expressed in proliferating cells as compared with terminally differentiated and nondividing rat hepatocytes and suggest that downregulation of this channel is associated with hepatocellular differentiation.