Scientists from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), assisted by colleagues from the University of Illinois, have successfully mimicked the process of bone formation in the laboratory. A cryoTitan electron microscope was used to capture the process in great visual detail and the results, which contradicted previous assumptions, could be applied to areas other than medicine.

Bone forms naturally when calcium phosphate nanocrystals are deposited on collagen fibers – which is just what the researchers did in the lab. It has long been assumed that the collagen only acted as a template for bone formation, with the actual process occurring due to the presence of specialized biomolecules. What the Eindhoven researchers discovered, however, was that the collagen fibers themselves control mineral (and thereby bone) formation. The biomolecules, it turns out, serve to keep the calcium phosphate in solution until mineral growth starts.

The formation process was observed with a cryoTitan electron microscope, which rapidly froze samples at various stages of mineralization. This allowed the scientists to document the procedure in steps, instead of trying to grab all their images on the fly. The microscope is capable of extremely high definition, being able to distinguish between individual atoms.

While an Italian group is already using the newfound knowledge to develop bone implants, the Eindhoven team are more interested in applying it to other areas, such as the creation of magnetic materials that could be used as biomarkers or for data storage.

“I am seriously convinced that we can make all kinds of materials using these principles,” said project leader Dr. Nico Sommerdijk. “The biomimetic formation of magnetic materials is a new area that is still completely unexplored.”