Background: The conversion of one cell type into another has been suggested to be, at the molecular level, the consequence of change(s) in the expression level of key developmental genes. Myoblasts have the ability to differentiate either to skeletal muscle or osteogenic lineage depending of external stimuli. Extracellular matrix (ECM) has been shown to be essential for skeletal muscle differentiation, through its direct interaction with myoblasts' cell receptors. We attempt to address if ECM also plays a role in the osteogenic differentiation of skeletal muscle cells. Results: Inhibition of proteoglycan sulfation by sodium chlorate in myoblast cultures strongly affects ECM synthesis and deposition and induces the expression of the osteogenic lineage markers alkaline phosphatase (ALP) and osteocalcin in mononuclear cells. Induction of ALP by sodium chlorate does not affect the expression of specific muscle determination transcription factors, such as MyoD and Myf-5, in the same cells. The osteogenic transcription factor Cbfa-1 expression is also unaffected. Induction of ALP is not inhibited by a soluble form of BMP receptor IA. This suggests that the deviation of the myogenic pathway of C2C12 myoblasts into the osteogenic lineage by inhibitors of proteoglycan sulfation is BMP-2 independent. The increase of osteogenic markers expression can be totally prevented by an exogenous ECM. Interestingly, a similar BMP-2-independent ALP activity induction can be observed in myoblasts cultured on an ECM previously synthesized by BMP-2 treated myoblasts. Under in vivo conditions of increased ECM turn-over and deposition, as in the mdx dystrophic muscle and during skeletal muscle regeneration, an induction and relocalization of ALP is observed in a subpopulation of skeletal muscle fibers, whereas in normal skeletal muscle, ALP expression is restricted to blood vessels and some endomysial mononuclear cells. Conclusion: These results suggest that signals arising from the ECM induce the expression of osteogenic markers in muscle cells by a mechanism independent of BMP-2 and without affecting the expression of key muscle or osteogenic determination genes. An induction and relocalization of ALP is also observed in mdx and regenerating skeletal muscles, in vivo conditions of increased muscle ECM deposition or turnover.