The extracellular matrix (ECM) consists of a complex mixture of structural and functional macromolecules and serves an important role in tissue and organ morphogenesis and in the maintenance of cell and tissue structure and function. The great diversity observed in the morphology and composition of the ECM contributes enormously to the properties and function of each organ and tissue. The ECM is also important during growth, development, and wound repair: its own dynamic composition acts as a reservoir for soluble signaling molecules and mediates signals from other sources to migrating, proliferating, and differentiating cells. Approaches to tissue engineering center on the need to provide signals to cell populations to promote cell proliferation and differentiation. These “external signals” are generated from growth factors, cell–ECM, and cell–cell interactions, as well as from physical-chemical and mechanical stimuli. This review considers recent advances in knowledge about cell–ECM interactions. A description of the main ECM molecules and cellular receptors with particular care to integrins and their role in stimulation of specific types of signal transduction pathways is also explained. The general principles of biomaterial design for tissue engineering are considered, with same examples. J. Cell. Physiol. 199: 174–180, 2004© 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.