Mesenchymal stromal/stem cell (MSC) expansion in conventional monolayer culture on plastic dishes (2D) leads to progressive loss of functionality and thus challenges fundamental studies on the physiology of skeletal progenitors, as well as translational applications for cellular therapy and molecular medicine. Here we demonstrate that 2D MSC expansion can be entirely bypassed by culturing freshly isolated bone marrow nucleated cells within 3D porous scaffolds in a perfusion-based bioreactor system. The 3D-perfusion system generated a stromal tissue that could be enzymatically treated to yield CD45- MSC. As compared to 2D-expanded MSC (control), those derived from 3D-perfusion culture after the same time (3 weeks) or a similar extent of proliferation (7-8 doublings) better maintained their progenitor properties, as assessed by a 4.3-fold higher clonogenicity and the superior differentiation capacity towards all typical mesenchymal lineages. Transcriptomic analysis of MSC from 5 donors validated the robustness of the process and indicated a reduced inter-donor variability and a significant upregulation of multipotency-related gene clusters following 3D-perfusion--as compared to 2D-expansion. Interestingly, the differences in functionality and transcriptomics between MSC expanded in 2D or under 3D-perfusion were only partially captured by cytofluorimetric analysis using conventional surface markers. The described system offers a multidisciplinary approach to study how factors of a 3D engineered niche regulate MSC function and, by streamlining conventional labor-intensive processes, is prone to automation and scalability within closed bioreactor systems.