We have studied the effects of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D [1,25-(OH)2D3] on cellular differentiation in the HT-29 human colon cancer cell line. Our aim was to evaluate the regulation of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D receptor (VDR) abundance and hormone responsiveness during the transition of rapidly proliferating to differentiated cells. Differentiation was induced by three means: cells were cultured in galactose-supplemented medium without glucose (GAL), grown on Matrigel-coated surfaces (MTG), or treated with 1,25(OH)2D3. Cell proliferation, assessed by [3H]thymidine incorporation, was equivalently inhibited by treatment with 1,25(OH)2D3, GAL or MTG. Differentiation was assessed by the induction of amino-oligo peptidase activity which was low in the proliferating cells. Following treatment with 1,25(OH)2D3, or growth in GAL or on MTG, amino-oligo peptidase activity increased 8- to 9-fold. The abundance of VDR measured by [3H]1,25(OH)2D3 binding, decreased to half without significant change in affinity, in cells differentiated by all three means compared to proliferating cells. Northern blot analyses of differentiated cells showed decreased steady-state levels of VDR messenger RNA (mRNA), indicating that all three treatments similarly decreased the abundance of VDR, at least in part, at the mRNA level. When exposed to 1,25(OH)2D3, the proliferating cells exhibited homologous up-regulation of VDR as well as the induction of 24-hydroxylase mRNA; the differentiated cells failed to exhibit both of these biological responses. Our findings demonstrate that 1,25(OH)2D3, GAL and MTG treatment all inhibit HT-29 cell proliferation and stimulate differentiation. Postproliferative differentiation achieved by the three approaches was associated with decreased VDR abundance, loss of VDR homologous up-regulation, and development of hormone unresponsiveness to 1,25(OH)2D3.