Human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSC) derived from bone marrow aspirates can form the basis for the in vitro cultivation of autologous tissue grafts and help alleviate the problems of immunorejection and disease transmission associated with the use of allografts. We explored the utility of hMSC cultured on protein scaffolds for tissue engineering of cartilage. hMSC were isolated, expanded in culture, characterized with respect to the expression of surface markers and ability for chondrogenic and osteogenic differentiation, and seeded on scaffolds. Four different scaffolds were tested, formed as a highly porous sponge made of: 1) collagen, 2) cross-linked collagen, 3) silk, and 4) RGD-coupled silk. Cell-seeded scaffolds were cultured for up to 4 weeks in either control medium (DMEM supplemented with 10% fetal bovine serum) or chondrogenic medium (control medium supplemented with chondrogenic factors). hMSC attachment, proliferation, and metabolic activity were markedly better on slowly degrading silk than on fast-degrading collagen scaffolds. In chondrogenic medium, hMSC formed cartilaginous tissues on all scaffolds, but the extent of chondrogenesis was substantially higher for hMSC cultured on silk as compared to collagen scaffolds. The deposition of glycosaminoglycan (GAG) and type II collagen and the expression of type II collagen mRNA were all higher for hMSC cultured on silk than on collagen scaffolds. Taken together, these results suggest that silk scaffolds are particularly suitable for tissue engineering of cartilage starting from hMSC, presumably due to their high porosity, slow biodegradation, and structural integrity. © 2004 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.