The serine protease thrombin stimulates proliferation in osteoblasts, but decreases alkaline phosphatase (ALP) activity, a marker of osteoblast differentiation. Three thrombin receptors have been identified, protease activated receptor (PAR)-1, PAR-3 and PAR-4; we have previously demonstrated that mouse osteoblasts express PAR-1 and PAR-4. The effect of thrombin on osteoblast proliferation and differentiation was studied to determine which of the thrombin receptors is responsible for the primary effects of thrombin. Primary mouse calvarial osteoblasts from PAR-1-null and wild-type mice, and synthetic peptides that specifically activate PAR-1 (TFFLR-NH2) and PAR-4 (AYPGKF-NH2) were used. Both the PAR-1-activating peptide and thrombin stimulated incorporation of 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine (two to four-fold, P < 0.001) and reduced alkaline phosphatase activity (approximately three-fold, P < 0.05) in cells from wild-type mice. The PAR-4-activating peptide, however, had no effect on either alkaline phosphatase activity or proliferation in these cells. Neither thrombin nor PAR-4-activating peptide was able to affect osteoblast proliferation or alkaline phosphatase activity in cells isolated from PAR-1-null mice. The results demonstrate that thrombin stimulates proliferation and inhibits differentiation of osteoblasts through activation of PAR-1. No other thrombin receptor appears to be involved in these effects.