To investigate the bioactivities of soybean, which act on bone metabolism, we studied the effect of a soybean ethanol extract on the activity of osteoblast MC3T3-E1 cells. Soy extract (0.01-0.1 g/l) dose-dependently increased survival (P<0.05) and DNA synthesis (P<0.05) of MC3T3-E1 cells. In addition, soy extract (0.05 g/l) increased alkaline phosphatase activity (P<0.05) and collagen synthesis (P<0.05) of MC3T3-E1 cells. Moreover, the anti-estrogen tamoxifen eliminated the stimulation of MC3T3-E1 cells on the proliferation, ALP activity and collagen synthesis by soy extract, indicating that the main action of the soy extract on osteoblastic MC3T3-E1 cells is similar to that of estrogen effects. Treatment with soy extract prevented apoptosis, as assessed by a one-step sandwich immunoassay and DNA gel electrophoresis studies. This effect may be associated with the activation of the estrogen receptor, since we observed soy extract-mediated survival against apoptosis was blocked by the estrogen receptor antagonist tamoxifen in cells, further supporting a receptor-mediated mechanism of cell survival. These results suggest that osteoblast function is promoted by soy extract and that the estrogen receptor is involved in the response, thereby playing an important role in bone remodeling. In conclusion, soy extract has a direct stimulatory effect on bone formation in cultured osteoblastic cell in vitro. Presumably, dietary soy products are useful in the prevention of osteoporosis.