Introduction: Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are multipotent cells capable of self-renewal and multilineage differentiation. Their multipotential capacity and immunomodulatory properties have led to an increasing interest in their biological properties and therapeutic applications. Currently, the definition of MSCs relies on a combination of phenotypic, morphological and functional characteristics which are typically evaluated upon in vitro expansion, a process that may ultimately lead to modulation of the immunophenotypic, functional and/or genetic features of these cells. Therefore, at present there is great interest in providing markers and phenotypes for direct in vivo and ex vivo identification and isolation of MSCs. Methods: Multiparameter flow cytometry immunophenotypic studies were performed on 65 bone marrow (BM) samples for characterization of CD13(high) CD105(+) CD45(-) cells. Isolation and expansion of these cells was performed in a subset of samples in parallel to the expansion of MSCs from mononuclear cells following currently established procedures. The protein expression profile of these cells was further assessed on (paired) primary and in vitro expanded BM MSCs, and their adipogenic, chondrogenic and osteogenic differentiation potential was also determined. Results: Our results show that the CD13(high) CD105(+) CD45(-) immunophenotype defines a minor subset of cells that are systematically present ex vivo in normal/reactive BM (n = 65) and that display immunophenotypic features, plastic adherence ability, and osteogenic, adipogenic and chondrogenic differentiation capacities fully compatible with those of MSCs. In addition, we also show that in vitro expansion of these cells modulates their immunophenotypic characteristics, including changes in the expression of markers currently used for the definition of MSCs, such as CD105, CD146 and HLA-DR. Conclusions: BM MSCs can be identified ex vivo in normal/reactive BM, based on a robust CD13(high) CD105(+) and CD45(-) immunophenotypic profile. Furthermore, in vitro expansion of these cells is associated with significant changes in the immunophenotypic profile of MSCs.