Bone loss is observed after exposure to weightlessness in both astronauts and inflight animals. Histological and biochemical studies on rats have shown a decrease in bone formation, probably as a result of altered osteoblast function. To investigate whether microgravity alters osteoblast differentiation in vitro, the human osteosarcoma cell line MG-63 was used as a model. MG-63 cells can be induced to differentiate by treating the cells with 1,25(OH)2D3 (10(-7) mol/L) and transforming growth factor-beta 2 (TGFbeta2) (10 ng/mL). The message level of differentiation-related genes was quantitated via competitive reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), both in untreated and hormone-treated cells cultured under microgravity for 9 days aboard the unmanned Foton 10 spaceflight, and compared to ground and inflight unit-gravity cultures. At microgravity, gene expression for collagen Ialpha1 following treatment was reduced to 51% of unit-gravity levels (p < 0.05). The amount of alkaline phosphatase messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) following treatment at microgravity increased by only a factor of 5 compared to the tenfold increase at unit gravity (p < 0.02). The osteocalcin message level in treated cells cultured at microgravity was only 19% of the level found in cells grown at unit gravity (p < 0.02). In conclusion, microgravity reduces the differentiation of osteoblastic MG-63 cells in response to systemic hormones and growth factors.