Although the structural design of cellular bone (i.e., bone containing osteocytes that are regularly spaced throughout the bone matrix) dates back to the first occurrence of bone as a tissue in evolution, and although osteocytes represent the most abundant cell type of bone, we know as yet little about the role of the osteocyte in bone metabolism. Osteocytes descend from osteoblasts. They are formed by the incorporation of osteoblasts into the bone matrix. Osteocytes remain in contact with each other and with cells on the bone surface via gap junction–coupled cell processes passing through the matrix via small channels, the canaliculi, that connect the cell body–containing lacunae with each other and with the outside world. During differentiation from osteoblast to mature osteocyte the cells lose a large part of their cell organelles. Their cell processes are packed with microfilaments. In this review we discuss the various theories on osteocyte function that have taken in consideration these special features of osteocytes. These are (1) osteocytes are actively involved in bone turnover; (2) the osteocyte network is through its large cell‐matrix contact surface involved in ion exchange; and (3) osteocytes are the mechanosensory cells of bone and play a pivotal role in functional adaptation of bone. In our opinion, especially the last theory offers an exciting concept for which some biomechanical, biochemical, and cell biological evidence is already available and which fully warrants further investigations.
Keywords: osteocyte; gap junction; cytoskeleton; extracellular matrix; osteocytic osteolysis; bone membrane; functional adaptation; mechanical loading; strain