Bone lengthening with osteotomy and gradual distraction was achieved in 57 rats, and the effect of mechanical tension-stress on gene expression of bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) was investigated by in situ hybridization and Northern blot analysis using probes of BMP-2, BMP-4, BMP-6, BMP-7, and growth/differentiation factor (GDF)-5. There was a lag phase for 7 days after femoral osteotomy until gradual distraction was carried out for 21 days at a rate of 0.25 mm/12 h using a small external fixator. The signals of the above BMPs mRNA were not detected in the intact rat bone but they were induced after osteotomy except those for BMP-7. By 4 days after osteotomy, BMP-2 and BMP-4 mRNAs were detected in chondrogenic precursor cells in the subperiosteal immature callus. BMP-6 and GDF-5 mRNA were detected in more differentiated cells in chondroid bone. By 7 days after osteotomy, cartilaginous external callus and bony endosteal callus were formed. Meanwhile, the signals of BMP-2 and BMP-4 mRNAs declined to preoperative levels, whereas the signals of BMP-6 and GDF-5 mRNAs were rather elevated. As distraction was started, the callus elongated and eventually separated into proximal and distal segments forming a fibrous interzone in the middle. Expression of BMP-2 and BMP-4 mRNAs was markedly induced at this stage. Their signals were detected widely among chondrogenic and osteogenic cells and their precursor cells sustaining mechanical tension-stress at the fibrous interzone. BMP-6 and GDF-5 mRNAs were detected exclusively in chondrogenic cells at both ends of the fibrous interzone, where endochondral ossification occurred. But neither mRNA was detected in terminally differentiated hypertrophic chondrocytes. As distraction advanced, the cartilage was progressively resorbed from both ends and new bone was formed directly by intramembranous ossification. There was no new cartilage formation in the advanced stage of distraction. The signals of BMP-6 and GDF-5 mRNA declined by this stage, while those of BMP-2 and BMP-4 were maintained at high level for as long as distraction was continued. After completion of distraction, the fibrous interzone fused and the lengthened segment was consolidated. BMP-2, BMP-4, BMP-6, nor GDF-5 was expressed at this stage. The signals of BMP-7 were not detected throughout the experiment. The present results suggest that excellent and uninterrupted bone formation during distraction osteogenesis owes to enhanced expression of BMP-2 and BMP-4 genes by mechanical tension-stress. Abundant gene products of BMP-2 and BMP-4 could induce in situ bone formation by paracrine and autocrine mechanisms.