Background Distraction osteogenesis is a valuable clinical tool; however the molecular mechanisms governing successful distraction remain unknown. We have used a uniaxial in vitro strain device to simulate the uniaxial mechanical environment of the interfragmentary distraction gap. Materials and methods Using the Flexcell system, normal human osteoblasts were subjected to different levels of cyclical uniaxial mechanical strain. Cellular morphology, proliferation, migration, and the expression of angiogenic (vascular endothelial growth factor [VEGF] and fibroblast growth factor-2 [FGF-2]) and osteogenic (osteonectin, osteopontin, and osteocalcin) proteins and extracellular matrix molecules (collagen IαII) were analyzed in response to uniaxial cyclic strain. Results Osteoblasts exposed to strain assumed a fusiform spindle-shaped morphology aligning parallel to the axis of uniaxial strain and osteoblasts exposed to strain or conditioned media had a 3-fold increase in proliferation. Osteoblast migration was maximal (5-fold) in response to 9% strain. Angiogenic cytokine, VEGF, and FGF-2, increased 32-fold and 2.6-fold ( P < 0.05), respectively. Osteoblasts expressed greater amounts of osteonectin, osteopontin, and osteocalcin (2.1-fold, 1.8-fold, 1.5-fold respectively, P < 0.01) at lower levels of strain (3%). Bone morphogenic protein-2 production increased maximally at 9% strain (1.6-fold, P < 0.01). Collagen I expression increased 13-, 66-, and 153-fold in response to 3, 6, and 9% strain, respectively. Conclusions Uniaxial cyclic strain using the Flexcell device under appropriate strain parameters provides a novel in vitro model that induces osteoblast cellular and molecular expression patterns that simulate patterns observed in the in vivo distraction gap.