A physiological gradient in intracellular calcium ([Ca2+]i) has been hypothesized to exist along the colonic crypt base-mouth axis, which may be involved in the regulation of colonocyte proliferation, differentiation and apoptosis. In addition [Ca2+]i may be modulated by dietary vitamin D3 which is thought to be protective against colorectal cancer. CF1 mice were maintained for 6 weeks on a defined diet containing either high or low vitamin D3. A colonic crypt base-mouth [Ca2+]i gradient of 201 +/- 79 nM (mean +/- SEM, P < 0.05) was observed in animals maintained on a high vitamin D3 diet and was abolished in mice maintained on a low vitamin D3 diet. The [Ca2+]i gradient was independent of extracellular calcium and elevated levels of [Ca2+]i observed in the basal regions of the crypt in animals maintained on low levels of vitamin D3 were also associated with an increase in intracellular calcium stores. Therefore, a [Ca2+]i gradient exists in colonic crypts and is dependent on dietary vitamin D3.