1. Changes of the free cytosolic Ca2+ concentration induced by shear stress were measured in Fura-2 acetoxymethyl ester-loaded endothelial cells from human umbilical cord veins. 2. We were able to induce Ca2+ transients in almost every cell by blowing a stream of physiological solution onto a single endothelial cell thereby inducing shear stress between 0 and 50 dyn cm-2. The Ca2+ response could be graded by varying the shear stress, and reached a half-maximal value at a shear stress of 30 dyn cm-2. 3. The shear stress responses critically depended on the extracellular Ca2+ concentration and were absent in a Ca(2+)-free solution. Repetitive application of short pulses of shear stress induced cumulative effects because of the slow decay of the shear stress Ca2+ responses (time constants 82.3 +/- 17.8 s from twenty-five cells). Application of a depolarizing high potassium solution to reduce the driving force for Ca2+ entry decreased the Ca2+ transients in some of the cells. 4. Application of shear stress in the presence of other divalent cations, such as nickel, cobalt or barium, always produced substantial changes in the ratio of the 390/360 nm fluorescence signal, indicating influx of these cations and subsequent quenching of the Fura-2 fluorescence. 5. Shear stress responses in the presence of 10 mM Ca2+ were completely blocked by application of 1 mM La3+. 6. Incubation of the cells with the phorbol ester 12-O-tetradecanoyl phorbol-13-acetate (TPA) did not alter the shear stress response, but completely blocked histamine-induced Ca2+ transients. 7. Small submaximal shear stress potentiated the Ca2+ transients induced by histamine. 8. We conclude that shear stress-dependent Ca2+ signals are induced by an influx of calcium that is not modulated via protein kinase C and not activated by membrane depolarization. The influx pathway is also permeable to divalent cations such as Ni2+, Co2+ and Ba2+, but is blocked by La3+.