Although dietary silicon (Si) is recognized to be an important factor for the growth and development of bone and connective tissue, its biochemical role has yet to be identified. The predominant Si-containing species in blood and other biofluids is orthosilicic acid, Si(OH)(4). Dimethylsilanediol, (CH(3))(2)Si(OH)(2), is an environmental contaminant that results from decomposition of silicone compounds used in personal hygiene, health care and industrial products. We examined the in vitro effects of both Si species on the survival (colony forming efficiency), proliferation (DNA content), differentiation (alkaline phosphatase activity) and adhesion (relative protein content) of the human osteoblast-like cell lines Saos-2 and hFOB 1.19. Orthosilicic acid yielded a small, dose-dependent decrease in Saos-2 cell survivability up to its 1,700 micromol/L solubility limit, by which point survival was 20% less than that of untreated cells. This negative association, although small, correlated with a reduction in the proliferation and adhesion of Saos-2 cells as well as of hFOB 1.19 and osteoclast-like GCT cells. By contrast, dimethylsilanediol treatment had no discernable influence on Saos-2 survivability at concentrations up to 50 micromol/L, and yet significantly enhanced cell survival at higher doses. Moreover, dimethylsilanediol did not affect proliferation or adhesion of any cell line. The findings show that orthosilicic acid and dimethylsilanediol affect osteoblast-like cells very differently, providing insight into the mechanism by which silicon influences bone health, although the specific site of Si activity remains unknown. There was no evidence to suggest that dimethylsilanediol is cytotoxic at environmental/physiological concentrations.