Mechanical cues present in the ECM have been hypothesized to provide instructive signals that dictate cell behavior. We probed this hypothesis in osteoblastic cells by culturing MC3T3-E1 cells on the surface of type I collagen-modified hydrogels with tunable mechanical properties and assessed their proliferation, migration, and differentiation. On gels functionalized with a low type I collagen density, MC3T3-E1 cells cultured on polystyrene proliferated twice as fast as those cultured on the softest substrate. Quantitative time-lapse video microscopic analysis revealed random motility speeds were significantly retarded on the softest substrate (0.25 +/- 0.01 microm/min), in contrast to maximum speeds on polystyrene substrates (0.42 +/- 0.04 microm/min). On gels functionalized with a high type I collagen density, migration speed exhibited a biphasic dependence on ECM compliance, with maximum speeds (0.34 +/- 0.02 microm/min) observed on gels of intermediate stiffness, whereas minimum speeds (0.24 +/- 0.03 microm/min) occurred on both the softest and most rigid (i.e., polystyrene) substrates. Immature focal contacts and a poorly organized actin cytoskeleton were observed in cells cultured on the softest substrates, whereas those on more rigid substrates assembled mature focal adhesions and robust actin stress fibers. In parallel, focal adhesion kinase (FAK) activity (assessed by detecting pY397-FAK) was influenced by compliance, with maximal activity occurring in cells cultured on polystyrene. Finally, mineral deposition by the MC3T3-E1 cells was also affected by ECM compliance, leading to the conclusion that altering ECM mechanical properties may influence a variety of MC3T3-E1 cell functions, and perhaps ultimately, their differentiated phenotype.