Progesterone (P) has been suggested as a bone-trophic hormone. Previous studies have shown that P promoted bone formation by stimulating the proliferation and differentiation of osteoblasts. But, the effect of P on apoptosis of osteoblast in vitro has not been reported. We propose that P may promote bone formation by suppressing the apoptosis of osteoblast. The present study was performed to investigate the effect of P on apoptosis of murine MC3T3-E1 osteoblastic cells. Cell apoptosis was measured by acidine orange/ethidium bromide (AO/EB) staining and sandwich-enzyme-immunoassay. Progesterone receptor (PR), cytochrome c, caspase-9 and caspase-3 protein levels were determined by Western blot analysis. The enzyme substrate was also used to assess the activation of caspase-3 and caspase-9. Progesterone suppressed MC3T3-E1 cells apoptosis induced by serum deprivation, and this effect was blocked by a PR antagonist RU486. Furthermore, the suppressive effects of P on cytochrome c release and caspase-9 and caspase-3 activation in serum-deprived MC3T3-E1 cells were also reversed by RU486. Our study demonstrated that P protects osteoblast against apoptosis through PR and the downstream mitochondrial pathway. Thus, the data suggest that the effects of P on osteoblast apoptosis may contribute to the mechanisms by which P exerts its action on bone formation.