Osteopontin is a phosphorylated bone matrix sialoprotein, postulated to play a regulatory role in biomineralization. The effects of a crude preparation of rat bone osteopontin and a more highly purified bovine bone osteopontin were evaluated using a gel diffusion system to measure effects of 0.1-100 micrograms/ml of this matrix protein on hydroxyapatite formation and crystal proliferation. Bovine osteopontin at concentrations greater than 25 micrograms/ml inhibited both hydroxyapatite formation and growth in a dose-dependent manner. Osteopontin at concentrations lower than 25 micrograms/ml had no detectable effect on the amount of mineral accumulated in experiments with and without pre-formed hydroxyapatite seed crystals either when initial mineral deposition was assessed at 3.5 days, or when mineral formation and growth were assessed at 5 days. There was a statistically significant dose-dependent decrease in crystal length at all concentrations tested. The rat osteopontin preparation had similar inhibitory abilities. Partial dephosphorylation of bovine osteopontin with alkaline phosphatase removed its inhibitory ability, and reduced its ability to bind calcium. The affinity of bovine osteopontin for hydroxyapatite was determined based on a Langmuir adsorption isotherm, with values of K (binding affinity) and N (number of binding sites) being 0.026 ml/microgram and 1084 micrograms/m2, respectively. The data suggest that, in this system, osteopontin is an effective inhibitor of hydroxyapatite formation and growth due to its affinity for the hydroxyapatite crystals. In this system, osteopontin, distinct from other phosphoproteins which both promote and inhibit hydroxyapatite deposition, did not enhance mineral formation at any concentration tested.