Granulocytic differentiation of human HL-60 cells can be induced by retinoic acid and is accompanied by a massive expression of CD38, a multi-functional enzyme responsible for metabolizing cyclic ADP-ribose (cADPR), a Ca2+ messenger. Immunofluorescence staining showed that CD38 was expressed not only on the surface of intact HL-60 cells but also intracellularly, which was revealed after permeabilization with Triton. Concomitant with CD38 expression was the accumulation of cADPR, and both time courses preceded the onset of differentiation, suggesting a causal role for CD38. Consistently, treatment of HL-60 cells with a permeant inhibitor of CD38, nicotinamide, inhibited both the CD38 activity and differentiation. More specific blockage of CD38 expression was achieved by using morpholino antisense oligonucleotides targeting its mRNA, which produced a corresponding inhibition of differentiation as well. Similar inhibitory effects were observed when CD38 expression was reduced by the RNA interference technique targeting two separate regions of the coding sequence of CD38. Further support came from transfecting HL-60 cells with a Tet-On expression vector containing a full-length CD38. Subsequent treatments with doxycycline induced both CD38 expression and differentiation in the absence of retinoic acid. These results provide the first evidence that CD38 expression and the consequential accumulation of cADPR play a causal role in mediating cellular differentiation.