Tantalum (Ta) is increasingly used in orthopaedics, although there is a paucity of information on the interaction of human osteoblasts with this material. We investigated the ability of Ta to support the growth and function of normal human osteoblast-like cells (NHBC). Cell responses to polished and textured Ta discs were compared with responses to other common orthopaedic metals, titanium and cobalt-chromium alloy, and tissue culture plastic. No consistent differences, that could be attributed to the different metal substrates or to the surface texture, were found in several measured parameters. Attachment of NHBC to each substrate was similar, as was cell morphology, as determined by confocal microscopy. Cell proliferation was slightly faster on plastic than on Ta at 3 days, but by 7 days neither the absolute cell numbers, nor the number of cell divisions, was different between Ta and the other substrates. No consistent, substrate-dependent differences were seen in the expression of a number of mRNA species corresponding to the pro-osteoclastic or the osteogenic activity of osteoblasts. No substrate-dependent differences were seen in the extent of in vitro mineralisation by NHBC. These results indicate that Ta is a good substrate for the attachment, growth and differentiated function of human osteoblasts.