We compared the effects of the tyrosine kinase inhibitor genistein, a naturally occurring isoflavone, to those of tyrphostin A25, tyrphostin A47, and herbimycin on avian osteoclasts in vitro. Inactive analogs daidzein and tyrphostin A1 were used to control for nonspecific effects. None of the tyrosine kinase inhibitors inhibited bone attachment. However, bone resorption was inhibited by genistein and herbimycin with ID50s of 3 μM and 0.1 μM, respectively; tyrphostins and daidzein were inactive at concentrations below 30 μM, where nonspecific effects were noted. Genistein and herbimycin thus inhibit osteoclastic activity via a mechanism independent of cellular attachment, and at doses approximating those inhibiting tyrosine kinase autophosphorylation in vitro; the tyrphostins were inactive at meaningful doses. Because tyrosine kinase inhibitors vary widely in activity spectrum, effects of genistein on cellular metabolic processes were compared to herbimycin. Unlike previously reported osteoclast metabolic inhibitors which achieve a measure of selectivity by concentrating on bone, neither genistein nor herbimycin bound significantly to bone. Osteoclastic protein synthesis, measured as incorporation of 3H-leucine, was significantly inhibited at 10 μM genistein, a concentration greater than that inhibiting bone degradation, while herbimycin reduced protein synthesis at 10 nM. These data suggested that genistein may reduce osteoclastic activity at pharmacologically attainable levels, and that toxic potential was lower than that of herbimycin. To test this hypothesis in a mammalian system, bone mass was measured in 200 g ovariectomized rats treated with 44 μmol/day genistein, relative to untreated controls. During 30 d of treatment, weights of treated and control group animals were indistinguishable, indicating no toxicity, but femoral weight in the treated group was 12% greater than controls (P < 0.05). Our data indicate that the isoflavone inhibitor genistein suppresses osteoclastic activity in vitro and in vivo at concentrations consistent with its ID50s on tyrosine kinases, with a low potential for toxicity.