We developed a rat model of limb lengthening to study the basic mechanism of distraction osteogenesis, using a small monolateral external fixator. In 11-week-old male rats we performed a subperiosteal osteotomy in the midshaft of the femur with distraction at 0.25 mm every 12 hours from seven days after operation. Radiological and histological examinations showed a growth zone of constant thickness in the middle of the lengthened segment, with formation of new bone at its proximal and distal ends. Osteogenic cells were arranged longitudinally along the tension vector showing the origin and the fate of individual cells in a single section. Typical endochondral bone formation was prominent in the early stage of distraction, but intramembraneous bone formation became the predominant mechanism of ossification at later stages. We also showed a third mechanism of ossification, 'transchondroid bone formation'. Chondroid bone, a tissue intermediate between bone and cartilage, was formed directly by chondrocyte-like cells, with transition from fibrous tissue to bone occurring gradually and consecutively without capillary invasion. In situ hybridisation using digoxigenin-11-UTP-labelled complementary RNAs showed that the chondroid bone cells temporarily expressed type-II collagen mRNA. They did not show the classical morphological characteristics of chondrocytes, but were assumed to be young chondrocytes undergoing further differentiation into bone-forming cells. We found at least three different modes of ossification during bone lengthening by distraction osteogenesis. We believe that this is the first report of such a rat model, and have shown the validity of in situ hybridisation techniques for the study of the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in distraction osteogenesis.