Mechanical forces have been reported to induce proliferation and/or differentiation in many cell types, but the role of mechanotransduction during embryonic stem cell fate decisions is unknown. To ascertain the role of mechanical strain in human embryonic stem cell (hESC) differentiation, we measured the rate of hESC differentiation in the presence and absence of biaxial cyclic strain. Above a threshold of 10% cyclic strain, applied to a deformable elastic substratum upon which the hESC colonies were cultured, hESC differentiation was reduced and self-renewal was promoted without selecting against survival of differentiated or undifferentiated cells. Frequency of mechanical strain application had little effect on extent of differentiation. hESCs cultured under cyclic strain retained pluripotency, evidenced by their ability to differentiate to cell lineages in all three germ layers. Mechanical inhibition of hESC differentiation could not be traced to secretion of chemical factors into the media suggesting that mechanical forces may directly regulate hESC differentiation. Mechanical strain is not sufficient to inhibit differentiation, however, in unconditioned medium, hESCs grown under strain differentiated at the same rate as cells cultured in the absence of strain. Thus, while mechanical forces play a role in regulating hESC self-renewal and differentiation, they must act synergistically with chemical signals. These findings imply that application of mechanical forces may be useful, in combination with chemical and matrix-encoded signals, towards controlling differentiation of hESCs for therapeutic applications. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.