Magnesium metal and its alloys have been proposed as a novel class of bone implant biomaterials because of their biodegradability and mechanical properties. The purpose of this study was to determine whether magnesium ions, which are released abundantly from alloys, affect proliferation and differentiation of human bone marrow-derived stromal cells (hBMSCs). High levels of magnesium ions did not induce cytotoxicity in hBMSCs, but treatment with 2.5–10 mm magnesium ions for 48–72 h significantly increased hBMSC proliferation. The expression of integrins α2 and α3, but not β1, was upregulated compared with the control and shifted from α3 to α2 in hBMSCs treated with magnesium ions. Knockdown of integrins α2 and/or α3 significantly reduced magnesium-induced proliferation of hBMSCs. Magnesium exposure profoundly enhanced alkaline phosphatase (ALP) gene expression and activity even at a relatively low magnesium concentration (2.5 mm). Exposure to magnesium ions facilitated hBMSC proliferation via integrin α2 and α3 expression and partly promoted differentiation into osteoblasts via the alteration of ALP expression and activity. Accordingly, magnesium could be a useful biomaterial for orthopaedic applications such as bone implant biomaterials for repair and regeneration of bone defects in orthopaedic and dental fields. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.