Physiological mechanical loading is crucial for maintenance of bone integrity and architecture. We have calculated the strain caused by gravity stress on osteoblasts and found that 4-30g corresponds to physiological levels of 40-300 microstrain. Short-term gravity loading (15 minutes) induced a 15-fold increase in expression of growth-related immediate early gene c-fos, a 5-fold increase in egr-1, and a 3-fold increase in autocrine bFGF. The non-growth-related genes EP-1, TGF-beta, and 18s were unaffected by gravity loading. Short-term physiological loading induced extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK 1/2) phosphorylation in a dose-dependent manner with maximum phosphorylation saturating at mechanical loading levels of 12g (p < 0.001) with no effect on total ERK. The phosphorylation of focal adhesion kinase (FAK) was unaffected by mechanical force. g-Loading did not activate P38 MAPK or c-jun N-terminal kinase (JNK). Additionally, a gravity pulse resulted in the localization of phosphorylated ERK 1/2 to the nucleus; this did not occur in unloaded cells. The induction of c-fos was inhibited 74% by the MEK1/2 inhibitor U0126 (p < 0.001) but was not affected by MEK1 or p38 MAPK-specific inhibitors. The long-term consequence of a single 15-minute gravity pulse was a 64% increase in cell growth (p < 0.001). U0126 significantly inhibited gravity-induced growth by 50% (p < 0.001). These studies suggest that short periods of physiological mechanical stress induce immediate early gene expression and growth in MC3T3-E1 osteoblasts primarily through an ERK 1/2-mediated pathway.