Optical methods have recently become available for continuously imaging the free concentrations of important ions and second messengers such as calcium, sodium and hydrogen inside living cells. These ion levels are found to undergo remarkable changes upon stimulation of quiescent cells with growth factors known to stimulate phosphoinositide breakdown. In serum-starved REF-52 fibroblasts, growth factors such as serum, vasopressin, or PDGF (platelet-derived growth factor) cause intracellular [Na+] to increase from about 4 mm to 8 mm. If mitogen treatment is combined with pharmacological depolarization of the membrane potential, repetitive [Ca2+]j spikes result in these rat fibroblasts. The mechanism of this oscillation has been investigated by light-flash release of intracellular messengers such as inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphate (Ins(1,4,5)P3), Ca2+, and diacylglycerol, as well as more traditional biochemical techniques. The key feedback pathway appears to be Ca2+-stimulation of phospholipase C production of Ins(1,4,5)P3.