Cultured human melanocytes derived from different skin types responded to frequent treatment with ultraviolet (UV) light with increased melanin synthesis, decreased proliferation, and morphologic signs of aging. These effects were augmented by increased frequency of irradiation with 15.5 mJ/cm2 UV light. Stimulation of melanogenesis by UV light involved an increase in tyrosinase activity, without any change in the amounts of either tyrosinase or tyrosinase-related protein (TRP)-1, and a decrease in the amount of TRP-2, as determined by Western blot analysis. These results are different from the mechanisms by which other melanogenic agents, such as cholera toxin and isobutyl methylxanthine, stimulated melanogenesis, whereby the amounts of tyrosinase, TRP-1 and TRP-2 were increased. The decrease in the amount of TRP-2 might be significant in that it might alter the properties of the newly synthesized melanin. The UV irradiation protocol that was followed blocked melanocytes in G2-M phase of the cell cycle without compromising cellular viability. Following three rounds of UV irradiation, melanocytes could recover from the growth arrest and resume proliferation. Treatment with 0.1 microM alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH) postirradiation enhanced the melanogenic effect of UV light and stimulated the melanocytes to proliferate. The effects of alpha-MSH on the UV-induced responses and their implications on photocarcinogenesis are being further investigated. Analyzing the mechanisms by which UV light exposure affects normal melanocytes might lead to a better understanding of how these cells undergo malignant transformation, and why individuals with different skin types differ in their susceptibility to skin cancers.