Abstract The Ilizarov method of limb lengthening makes use of the fact that osteogenesis is induced at an osteotomy site when distraction is applied. It is unknown at present how the mechanical forces created by distraction are translated into biological signals. Because bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) are potent inducers of osteogenesis in many experimental systems, they are obvious candidates for playing a role in this process. In this study, we investigated the temporal and spatial expression of BMP-2, -4, and -7 proteins during distraction osteogenesis using immunohistochemistry. An osteotomy was performed on the right tibiae of white New Zealand rabbits. After a delay of 7 days, distraction was started at a rate of 0.25 mm/12 h for 3 weeks, followed by a 3 week consolidation phase. Each week after osteotomy one rabbit was killed for immunohistochemical studies. Staining for BMP-2, -4, and -7 was evident before distraction was applied and was mainly localized to mesenchymal cells and osteoblastic cells in the periosteal region. After distraction was started, the typical fibrous interzone developed between the osteotomy fragments, where both intramembranous and endochondral ossification were noted. In this area, cells resembling fibroblasts and chondrocytes, but not mature osteoblasts, showed intense staining for all three BMPs. This high level of expression was maintained during the entire distraction phase and then gradually disappeared during the consolidation phase. These results are compatible with the hypothesis that BMPs play an important role in the signaling pathways that link the mechanical forces created by distraction to biological responses.