BACKGROUND: The human cysteine rich protein 61 (CYR61, CCN1) as well as the other members of the CCN family of genes play important roles in cellular processes such as proliferation, adhesion, migration and survival. These cellular events are of special importance within the complex cellular interactions ongoing in bone remodeling. Previously, we analyzed the role of CYR61/CCN1 as an extracellular signaling molecule in human osteoblasts. Since mesenchymal stem cells of bone marrow are important progenitors for various differentiation pathways in bone and possess increasing potential for regenerative medicine, here we aimed to analyze the expression of CCN family members in bone marrow-derived human mesenchymal stem cells and along the osteogenic, the adipogenic and the chondrogenic differentiation. RESULTS: Primary cultures of human mesenchymal stem cells were obtained from the femoral head of patients undergoing total hip arthroplasty. Differentiation into adipocytes and osteoblasts was done in monolayer culture, differentiation into chondrocytes was induced in high density cell pellet cultures. For either pathway, established differentiation markers and CCN-members were analyzed at the mRNA level by RT-PCR and the CYR61/CCN1 protein was analyzed by immunocytochemistry.RT-PCR and histochemical analysis revealed the appropriate phenotype of differentiated cells (Alizarin-red S, Oil Red O, Alcian blue, alkaline phosphatase; osteocalcin, collagen types I, II, IX, X, cbfa1, PPARgamma, aggrecan). Mesenchymal stem cells expressed CYR61/CCN1, CTGF/CCN2, CTGF-L/WISP2/CCN5 and WISP3/CCN6. The CYR61/CCN1 expression decreased markedly during osteogenic differentiation, adipogenic differentiation and chondrogenic differentiation. These results were confirmed by immuncytochemical analyses. WISP2/CCN5 RNA expression declined during adipogenic differentiation and WISP3/CCN6 RNA expression was markedly reduced in chondrogenic differentiation. CONCLUSION: The decrease in CYR61/CCN1 expression during the differentiation pathways of mesenchymal stem cells into osteoblasts, adipocytes and chondrocytes suggests a specific role of CYR61/CCN1 for maintenance of the stem cell phenotype. The differential expression of CTGF/CCN2, WISP2/CCN5, WISP3/CCN6 and mainly CYR61/CCN1 indicates, that these members of the CCN-family might be important regulators for bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells in the regulation of proliferation and initiation of specific differentiation pathways.