When grown in medium containing ascorbic acid and β-glycerol phosphate, mouse MC3T3-E1 cells express an osteoblast phenotype and produce a highly mineralized extracellular matrix. The purpose of this study was to independently examine the role of the collagenous matrix and functional osteoblasts on the mineralization process. Cultures with and without an extensive collagenous matrix were prepared by growing MC3T3-E1 cells in the presence and absence of ascorbic acid. Matrix-rich cultures mineralized at much lower calcium phosphate ion products than nonmatrix cultures. At higher ion products, spontaneous precipitation in the medium and cell layers of nonmatrix cultures were observed. In contrast, mineral in matrix-rich cultures was still exclusively associated with collagen fibrils and not with ectopic sites in the cell layer or medium. To examine the effect of cell viability on matrix mineralization, cells were grown 8 or 16 days in the presence of ascorbic acid, then killed and incubated in a mineralizing medium. Significant mineralization was not observed in the collagenous matrix of 8-day killed cultures or age-matched controls. At 16 days mineral was associated with collagen fibrils at specific foci in the matrix of both viable and killed cultures. This observation is consistent with the concept that collagenous matrices must undergo a maturation process before they can support mineral induction and growth. It further shows that osteoblast-like cells are not required for mineralization of mature matrices, but are required for matrix maturation.