The bone replacement process in the adult skeleton is known as remodeling. When bone is removed by osteoclasts, new bone is laid down by osteoblasts in the same place, because the load bearing requirement is unchanged. Bone is usually replaced because it is too old to carry out its function, which is mainly mechanical in cortical bone and mainly support for homeostasis and hematopoiesis in cancellous bone. Remodeling always begins on a quiescent bone surface, separated from the marrow by flat lining cells that are one of the two modes of terminal differentiation of osteoblasts. Lining cells are gatekeepers, able to be informed of the need for remodeling, and to either execute or mediate all four components of its activation-selection and preparation of the site, recruitment of mononuclear preosteoclasts, budding of new capillaries, and attraction of preosteoclasts to the chosen site where they fuse into multinucleated osteoclasts.
In cortical bone, osteonal remodeling is carried out by a complex and unique structure, the basic multicellular unit (BMU) that comprises a cutting cone of osteoclasts in front, a closing cone lined by osteoblasts following behind, and connective tissue, blood vessels and nerves filling the cavity. The BMU maintains its size, shape and internal organization for many months as it travels through bone in a controlled direction. Individual osteoclast nuclei are short-lived, turning over about 8% per d, replaced by new preosteoclasts that originated in the bone marrow and travel in the circulation to the site of resorption. Refilling of bone at each successive cross-sectional location is accomplished by a team of osteoblasts, probably originating from precursors within the local connective tissue, all assembled within a narrow window of time, at the right location, and in the right orientation to the surface. Each osteoblast team forms bone most rapidly at its onset and slows down progressively. Some of the osteoblasts are buried as osteocytes, some die, and the remainder gradually assume the shape of lining cells. Cancellous bone is more accessible to study than cortical bone, but is geometrically complex. Although remodeling conforms to the same sequence of surface activation, resorption and formation, its three-dimensional organization is difficult to visualize from two-dimensional histologic sections. But the average sizes of resorption sites, formation sites, and completed structural units increase progressively, as they do in cortical bone, indicating that the cancellous BMU travels across the surface digging a trench rather than a tunnel, but maintaining its size, shape and individual identity by the continuous recruitment of new cells, just as in cortical bone, a process that can be visualized as hemiosteonal remodeling. The conclusion that all remodeling is carried out by individual BMUs has important implications for bone biology, since many questions about how BMUs operate cannot be answered by studying either intact organisms or isolated cell systems. Many different steps in remodeling and many factors that influence each step have been identified, but very little is known about how the process is regulated in vivo to achieve its biologic purposes; most factors studied to date are likely permissive rather than regulatory in nature. Based on the proposed conceptual model of the BMU, much in vitro experimentation is relevant to the growth, modeling and repair of bone, but not to its remodeling in the adult skeleton. Further progress in the understanding of in vivo physiology will require the characterization of gene expression in individual cells to be related to the spatial and temporal organization of the BMU. This is likely to be possible only for osteonal remodeling in cortical bone in which, because of its geometric simplicity, individual BMUs can consistently be observed in two-dimensional, longitudinal sections