1,25-Dihydroxyvitamin D plays an important role in the regulation of osteoblast gene expression, regulating the expression of bone matrix proteins as well as that of Runx2, a key regulator of osteoblast differentiation. Studies in mice lacking the vitamin D receptor (VDR) have revealed that the actions of the VDR on the skeleton are not required in the setting of normal mineral ion homeostasis. Since paracrine and endocrine factors can compensate for gene defects in vivo, studies were performed to determine whether ablation of the VDR alters the program of osteoblast differentiation in vitro. Studies in primary calvarial cultures revealed that ablation of the VDR enhanced osteoblast differentiation. The cells from the VDR null mice exhibited an earlier onset and increased magnitude of alkaline phosphatase activity, as well as an earlier and sustained increase in mineralized matrix formation, demonstrating that this enhancement persists throughout the program of osteoblast differentiation. The expression of bone sialoprotein, which enhances mineralization, was also increased in the VDR null cultures. To determine whether the increase in osteoblast differentiation was associated with an increase in the number of osteogenic progenitors, the number of osteoblastic colony forming units (CFU-OB) was evaluated. There was a twofold increase in the number of CFU-OB in the cultures isolated from the VDR null mice. Furthermore, the VDR null CFU-OB demonstrated an earlier onset and higher magnitude of expression of alkaline phosphatase activity when compared to the CFU-OB from their wild-type control littermates. These studies demonstrate that the VDR attenuates osteoblast differentiation in vitro and suggest that other endocrine and paracrine factors modulate the effect of the VDR on osteoblast differentiation in vivo. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.