Cytosolic free Ca2+ ([Ca2+]i) oscillations are postulated to play a critical role in cellular proliferation. By using doublets of normal rats (NR) and those 18 hours after two-thirds hepatectomy (PHR), we investigated cytosolic free Ca2+ ([Ca2+]i) responses in liver regeneration. Normal rat hepatocyte doublets that retain their bile canaliculi are polarized and well differentiated. PHR doublets, which also retain their bile canaliculi, were characterized as undifferentiated by (1) decreased canalicular secretion of fluorescein-isothiocyanate-labeled glycocholate; (2) increased labeling index of hepatocytes in BrdU staining (approximately 30%); and (3) impaired transfer of fluorescent dye injected into one cell of the pair to the other. Addition of phenylephrine to NR and PHR doublets in the presence of extracellular Ca2+ resulted in [Ca2+]i oscillations or a nonoscillatory-sustained increase in [Ca2+]i followed by a gradual return to the baseline. Extracellular Ca2+ was not required for [Ca2+]i oscillations but was necessary for a sustained increase in [Ca2+]i. Simultaneous addition of prazosin, alpha 1-receptor blocker, to doublets immediately abolished these [Ca2+]i responses. The [Ca2+]i level in each of the adjacent cells was synchronous in sustained increase in [Ca2+]i but asynchronous in [Ca2+]i oscillations. As the phenylephrine concentration was increased (1 to 100 mumol/L), oscillations were replaced by a sustained increase in [Ca2+]i in NR doublets. In contrast, in PHR doublets, oscillations remained, whereas the frequency of oscillations increased in a dose-dependent manner. These results indicate that the mechanisms of phenylephrine-evoked [Ca2+]i responses are different in differentiated and undifferentiated doublets and that the frequency modulation of [Ca2+]i oscillations may be involved in the intracellular signal transduction in the cellular proliferation process during liver regeneration.