Nearly unbreakable

This press release is also available in German.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces have found a new design principle at the nanoscale which is responsible for the enormous stability and deformabilty of bone. They found that a piece of bone stretches more than the fibres and much more than the mineral it is composed of. The scientists applied a novel technique based on the use of a brilliant beam of X-ray photons at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France. The same bone tissue may deform differently at different scales because of the shearing of a thin glue layer between the fibres that make up bone, as well as between the tiny mineral particles that lie inside a fibre. This construction allows bones to sustain large strains without breaking, despite being made of essentially rigid units at the molecular level (PNAS, November 9, 2006).

The bones in vertebrate skeletal systems need to have two main properties which at first appear to be contradictory. First, they must be rigid - a limb bone should not flop over under the weight of the bearer - and secondly, they must be tough and energy absorbing - a bone should not splinter into small fragments when dealt a blow. Usually, substances like rubber that can absorb a lot of energy by molecular conformational changes are, by the same mechanism, easy to stretch. Conversely, materials like ceramics are very rigid due to tight ionic bonds between atoms, but if the bonds break locally, runaway cracks can split the material in a brittle manner. Now in bone, half (by volume) is a stretchable fibrous protein called collagen and the other half a brittle mineral phase called apatite. By as yet incompletely understood construction strategies, such biomineralized tissues exhibit remarkably high strength and toughness necessary for their physiological functioning.


Contact: Dr. Himadri Gupta

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