Research Article

Fractal-like hierarchical organization of bone begins at the nanoscale

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Science  04 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6388, eaao2189
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2189

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Curving bones

On larger length scales, bone is known to have a hierarchical structure in which small crystals of calcium phosphates arrange themselves around helices of collagen. These make up larger structures, such as the osteons found in compact bone. However, at smaller lengths, does the hierarchical structure persist? By combining three-dimensional electron tomography with two-dimensional electron microscopy, Reznikov et al. observed structural ordering from the nanoscale upward. At the smallest scale, needle-shaped mineral units form platelets that organize into stacks bridging multiple collagen units.

Science, this issue p. eaao2189

Structured Abstract


The components of bone assemble hierarchically to provide stiffness and toughness. Deciphering the specific organization and relationship between bone’s principal components—mineral and collagen—requires answers to three main questions: whether the association of the mineral phase with collagen follows an intrafibrillar or extrafibrillar pattern, whether the morphology of the mineral building blocks is needle- or platelet-shaped, and how the mineral phase maintains continuity across an extensive network of cross-linked collagen fibrils. To address these questions, a nanoscale level of three-dimensional (3D) structural characterization is essential and has now been performed.


Because bone has multiple levels of 3D structural hierarchy, 2D imaging methods that do not detail the structural context of a sample are prone to interpretation bias. Site-specific focused ion beam preparation of lamellar bone with known orientation of the analyzed sample regions allowed us to obtain imaging data by 2D high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM) and to identify individual crystal orientations. We studied higher-level bone mineral organization within the extracellular matrix by means of scanning TEM (STEM) tomography imaging and 3D reconstruction, as well as electron diffraction to determine crystal morphology and orientation patterns. Tomographic data allowed 3D visualization of the mineral phase as individual crystallites and/or aggregates that were correlated with atomic-resolution TEM images and corresponding diffraction patterns. Integration of STEM tomography with HRTEM and crystallographic data resulted in a model of 3D mineral morphology and its association with the organic matrix.


To visualize and characterize the crystallites within the extracellular matrix, we recorded imaging data of the bone mineral in two orthogonal projections with respect to the arrays of mineralized collagen fibrils. Three motifs of mineral organization were observed: “filamentous” (longitudinal or in-plane) and “lacy” (out-of-plane) motifs, which have been reported previously, and a third “rosette” motif comprising hexagonal crystals. Tomographic reconstructions showed that these three motifs were projections of the same 3D assembly. Our data revealed that needle-shaped, curved nanocrystals merge laterally to form platelets, which further organize into stacks of roughly parallel platelets separated by gaps of approximately 2 nanometers. These stacks of platelets, single platelets, and single acicular crystals coalesce into larger polycrystalline aggregates exceeding the lateral dimensions of the collagen fibrils, and the aggregates span adjacent fibrils as continuous, cross-fibrillar mineralization.


Our findings can be described by a model of mineral and collagen assembly in which the mineral organization is hierarchical at the nanoscale. First, the data reveal that mineral particles are neither exclusively needle- nor platelet-shaped, but indeed are a combination of both, because curved acicular elements merge laterally to form slightly twisted plates. This can only be detected when the organic extracellular matrix is preserved in the sample. Second, the mineral particles are neither exclusively intrafibrillar nor extrafibrillar, but rather form a continuous cross-fibrillar phase where curved and merging crystals splay beyond the typical dimensions of a single collagen fibril. Third, in the organization of the mineral phase of bone, a helical pattern can be identified. This 3D observation, integrated with previous studies of bone hierarchy and structure, illustrates that bone (as a material, as a tissue, and as an organ) follows a fractal-like organization that is self-affine. The assembly of bone components into nested, helix-like patterns helps to explain the paradoxical combination of enhanced stiffness and toughness of bone and results in an expansion of the previously known hierarchical structure of bone to at least 12 levels.

Proposed model of crystal organization in bone.

Patterns specified by our model (top) are compared with projections of the STEM tomogram reconstructed from a STEM tilt series, showing the mineral organization in different directions (bottom).


The components of bone assemble hierarchically to provide stiffness and toughness. However, the organization and relationship between bone’s principal components—mineral and collagen—has not been clearly elucidated. Using three-dimensional electron tomography imaging and high-resolution two-dimensional electron microscopy, we demonstrate that bone mineral is hierarchically assembled beginning at the nanoscale: Needle-shaped mineral units merge laterally to form platelets, and these are further organized into stacks of roughly parallel platelets. These stacks coalesce into aggregates that exceed the lateral dimensions of the collagen fibrils and span adjacent fibrils as continuous, cross-fibrillar mineralization. On the basis of these observations, we present a structural model of hierarchy and continuity for the mineral phase, which contributes to the structural integrity of bone.

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