In humans the major stimulus for cutaneous pigmentation is ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Little is known about the mechanism underlying this response, in part because of the complexity of interactions in whole epidermis. Using a recently developed culture system, human melanocytes were exposed daily to a physiologic range of UVR doses from a solar simulator. Responses were determined 24 hours after the last exposure. There was a dose-related increase in melanin content per cell and uptake of 14C-DOPA, accompanied by growth inhibition. Cells from donors of different racial origin gave proportionately similar increases in melanin, although there were approximately tenfold differences in basal values. Light and electron microscopy revealed UVR-stimulated increases in dendricity as well as melanosome number and degree of melanization, analogous to the well-recognized melanocyte changes following sun exposure of intact skin. Similar responses were seen with Cloudman S91 melanoma cells, although this murine cell line required lower UVR dosages and fewer exposures for maximal stimulation. These data establish that UVR is capable of directly stimulating melanogenesis. Because cyclic AMP elevation has been associated in some settings with increased pigment production by cultured melanocytes, preliminary experiments were conducted to see if the effects of UVR were mediated by cAMP. Both α-MSH and isobutylmethylxanthine (IBMX), as positive controls, caused a fourfold increase in cAMP level in human melanocytes and/or S91 cells, but following a dose of UVR sufficient to stimulate pigment production there was no change in cAMP level up to 4 hours after exposure. Thus it appears that the UVR-induced melanogenesis is mediated by cAMP-independent mechanisms.