In order to evaluate whether human osteoblastic cells differentiate normally on hydroxyapatite, we have compared the adhesion, proliferation, and differentiation of human trabecular (HT) osteoblastic cells on synthetic-dense hydroxyapatite and on standard plastic culture. We show here that initial HT cell attachment was 4-fold lower on hydroxyapatite than on plastic after 4 h of culture, and that normal cell attachment on hydroxyapatite was restored after 18 h of culture. HT cell proliferation was similar on the two substrates at 2-8 days of culture, but was lower on hydroxyapatite compared to plastic after 15 and 28 days of culture, as evaluated by DNA synthesis or cell number. HT cells cultured on both substrates produced an abundant extracellular matrix which immunostained for Type I collagen. The levels of carboxyterminal propeptide of Type I procollagen (P1CP) in the medium were lower in HT cell cultures on hydroxyapatite than on plastic. In addition, (H-3)-proline incorporation into matrix proteins and the mean thickness of matrix layers were 52\% and 26\% lower, respectively, on hydroxyapatite compared to plastic after 4 weeks of culture, indicating that the total collagenous matrix synthesized by HT cells was lower on hydroxyapatite. However, (H-3)-proline and calcium uptake expressed per cell was higher on hydroxyapatite than on plastic. The results show that human osteoblastic cells attach, proliferate, and differentiate on dense hydroxyapatite with a sequence similar to that of plastic. However, the growth of human osteoblastic cells is lower on hydroxyapatite in long-term culture, which results in a reduced amount of extracellular matrix, although matrix production per cell may be increased. (C) 1997 John Wiley \& Sons, Inc.