Mechanical loading modulates cartilage homeostasis through the control of matrix synthesis and catabolism. However, the mechanotransduction pathways through which chondrocytes detect different loading conditions remain unclear. The present study investigated the influence of cyclic compression on intracellular Ca2+ signalling using the well-characterised chondrocyte-agarose model. Cells labelled with Fluo4 were visualised using confocal microscopy following a period of 10 cycles of compression between 0% and 10% strain. In unstrained agarose constructs, not subjected to cyclic compression, a subpopulation of approximately 45% of chondrocytes exhibited spontaneous global Ca2+ transients with mean transient rise and fall times of 19.4 and 29.4 sec, respectively. Cyclic compression modulated global Ca2+ signalling by increasing the percentage of cells exhibiting Ca2+ transients (population modulation) and/or reducing the rise and fall times of these transients (transient shape modulation). The frequency and strain rate of compression differentially modulated these Ca2+ signalling characteristics providing a potential mechanism through which chondrocytes may distinguish between different loading conditions. Treatment with apyrase, gadolinium and the P2 receptor blockers, suramin and basilen blue, significantly reduced the percentage of cells exhibiting Ca2+ transients following cyclic compression, such that the mechanically induced upregulation of Ca2+ signalling was completely abolished. Thus cyclic compression appears to activate a purinergic pathway involving the release of ATP followed by the activation of P2 receptors causing a combination of extracellular Ca2+ influx and intracellular Ca2+ release. Knowledge of this fundamental cartilage mechanotransduction pathway may lead to improved therapeutic strategies for the treatment of cartilage damage and disease. J. Cell. Physiol. 209: 389–397, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.