Skip to Content
77 Mass Ave

The Heart of Bone

MIT researchers have decoded the complex structure that gives bones their strength

A team of MIT researchers led by civil engineer and materials scientist Markus Buehler has finally unraveled the structure of bone—a long-standing mystery—with almost atom-by-atom precision. Doing so took many years of analysis by some of the world’s most powerful computers, results that were confirmed by laboratory experiments.

bone and mineral crystal
Bone combines a collagen ­protein molecule (top) and a hydroxyapatite mineral crystal.

Buehler says the biggest question was how two different materials—a soft, flexible biomolecule called collagen and a hard, brittle form of the mineral apatite—combine to form something that is simultaneously hard, tough, and slightly flexible.

The constituents are so different that “you can’t take these two materials individually and understand how bone behaves,” Buehler says. Hydroxyapatite is like chalk, he says: “It’s very brittle. If you try to bend it even a little, it breaks into pieces.” Collagen, on the other hand, is what gelatin is made of—the very epitome of a wobbly substance.

The team found that “tiny hydroxyapatite grains [are] embedded in the collagen matrix,” allowing the two materials to “each contribute the best of their properties,” Buehler says. “Hydroxyapatite takes most of the forces in the material, whereas collagen takes most of the stretching.”

The new understanding of bone’s molecular structure and function could help in determining what goes wrong in diseases such as osteoporosis and brittle bone disease.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

protein structures
protein structures

DeepMind says it will release the structure of every protein known to science

The company has already used its protein-folding AI, AlphaFold, to generate structures for the human proteome, as well as yeast, fruit flies, mice, and more.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.