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A direct observation and an in-depth characterization of the steps by which bone mineral nucleates and grows in the extracellular matrix during the earliest stages of maturation, using relevant biomineralization models as they grow into mature bone mineral, is an important research goal. To better understand the process of bone mineralization in the extracellular matrix, we used nanoanalytical electron microscopy techniques to examine an in vitro model of bone formation. This study demonstrates the presence of three dominant CaP structures in the mineralizing osteoblast cultures: <80 nm dense granules with a low calcium to phosphate ratio (Ca/P) and crystalline domains; calcium phosphate needles emanating from a focus: "needle-like globules" (100-300 nm in diameter) and mature mineral, both with statistically higher Ca/P compared to that of the dense granules. Many of the submicron granules and globules were interspersed around fibrillar structures containing nitrogen, which are most likely the signature of the organic phase. With high spatial resolution electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS) mapping, spatially resolved maps were acquired showing the distribution of carbonate within each mineral structure. The carbonate was located in the middle of the granules, which suggested the nucleation of the younger mineral starts with a carbonate-containing precursor and that this precursor may act as seed for growth into larger, submicron-sized, needle-like globules of hydroxyapatite with a different stoichiometry. Application of analytical electron microscopy has important implications in deciphering both how normal bone forms and in understanding pathological mineralization.

Original publication




Journal article


ACS Nano

Publication Date





6826 - 6835


bone, calcium phosphate precursor, carbonate, electron energy loss spectroscopy, mineralization