The nanometre-scale structure of collagen and bioapatite within bone establishes bone's physical properties, including strength and toughness. However, the nanostructural organization within bone is not well known and is debated. Widely accepted models hypothesize that apatite mineral ('bioapatite') is present predominantly inside collagen fibrils: in 'gap channels' between abutting collagen molecules, and in 'intermolecular spaces' between adjacent collagen molecules. However, recent studies report evidence of substantial extrafibrillar bioapatite, challenging this hypothesis. We studied the nanostructure of bioapatite and collagen in mouse bones by scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) using electron energy loss spectroscopy and high-angle annular dark-field imaging. Additionally, we developed a steric model to estimate the packing density of bioapatite within gap channels. Our steric model and STEM results constrain the fraction of total bioapatite in bone that is distributed within fibrils at less than or equal to 0.42 inside gap channels and less than or equal to 0.28 inside intermolecular overlap regions. Therefore, a significant fraction of bone's bioapatite (greater than or equal to 0.3) must be external to the fibrils. Furthermore, we observe extrafibrillar bioapatite between non-mineralized collagen fibrils, suggesting that initial bioapatite nucleation and growth are not confined to the gap channels as hypothesized in some models. These results have important implications for the mechanics of partially mineralized and developing tissues.
Keywords: elemental mapping; bioapatite; mineralized collagen fibril; scanning transmission electron microscopy–high-angle annular dark-field imaging; scanning transmission electron microscopy–electron energy loss spectroscopy imaging