OBJECTIVE To explore the response of rat bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs and calvarial osteoblasts to mechanical strain and the consequent changes of cytoskeleton F-actin. METHODS Bone marrow MSCs and calvarial osteoblasts were isolated from SD rats and cultured in vitro. Mechanical stretch was performed on passage 3 cells at 2 000 microepsilon for 0, 2, 6 and 12 hours using four-point bending system. The response of cells and the distribution of F-actin were observed using fluorescent staining under laser scanning confocal microscope and the morphological parameters were quantified using image analysis software Laserpix. RESULTS Under mechanical stretch, the fluorescent staining decreased obviously at both MSCs and osteoblasts, and F-actin filaments were rearranged and became tenuous, thinner, and abnormally distributed. The outline of nucleus became unclear and apoptotic changes were observed at some of both cells. Cellular size decreased more significantly in MSCs than in osteoblasts. Quantity analysis showed that total area of cells, total fluorescent density and green fluorescent density (F-actin) were all significantly decreased in MSCs (P < 0.05 or P < 0.01), and total fluorescent density, green fluorescent density and red fluorescent density (nuclei) did also in osteoblasts (P < 0.05 or P < 0.01). CONCLUSION Mechanical stretch caused extensive response on both MSCs and osteoblasts which led to the rearrangement of F-actin filament and apoptosis in some of these cells. MSCs were more sensitive to mechanical strain than osteoblasts.