Written by Patricia Stuart-Macadam | Tuesday, 22 March 2022
Most people think that bones are dead, dry, inert, and boring. I certainly did until I took my first course in human osteology, the study of human bones.
The moment that I learned that bones are a living, dynamic part of the body, I was hooked! I became captivated by the shape of the bones and the puzzle-like connections they made with each other. I learned that by weight, bone is five times stronger than steel. It is one of the strongest, yet most flexible, natural materials on earth because of its composition of both organic (collagen) and inorganic (mineral) components.
It amazed me to discover that, because of the way bone is structured, if either the organic or inorganic component is removed, bone is still able to retain its shape. If you place a fibula (the long thin lower leg bone) in acid, the minerals dissolve out but not the collagen, maintaining the bone’s shape but without the strength of the minerals, leaving the fibula so rubbery that it can be tied into a knot. If a fibula is burned, it destroys the collagen but not the mineral, again maintaining the same shape, but without the flexibility of collagen which leaves the bone so brittle that it easily breaks. There is such beauty and complexity in a tissue that has the strength and rigidity to provide the structural framework of the body, but at the same time the flexibility and plasticity to adapt to the requirements and life history of that body.
Some years ago, I had an internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. While there, I had the opportunity to examine bone under a scanning electron microscope for the first time. It was an extraordinary experience – like climbing into a spaceship, but instead of exploring outer space, I was exploring inner space. As I sat at the microscope and dove down deeper and deeper into ever-increasing magnification I felt as if I had entered a magical realm.
First, I had a bird’s eye view of the honeycomb structure of the spongy bone that is found in the parts of bones containing bone marrow. The bony spicules (slender, sharp-pointed part) of the framework of trabeculae (branched struts of bone) loomed larger and larger as I increased the magnification. With even greater magnification I suddenly saw the classic “osteoclast footprints” that osteoclasts, the bone destroying cells, make as they go about their job of dissolving bone collagen and mineral to repair and remodel bone.
My greatest surprise was yet to come. As I space travelled through ever greater magnification, first, tiny crystals appeared, and then finally, a whole enchanted forest of huge and incredibly beautiful crystalline structures grew in front of my eyes. These were the hydroxyapatite crystals of bone, made from minerals, calcium, and phosphate. Who would have thought that at our core we are made of crystals!
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Patricia has been a lecturer at Endeavour College for six years and is passionate about educating students on biosciences and human biology. She also works as a Homoeopathic Practitioner as well as a Kinesiology and Energy Medicine Practitioner. Having taught in many higher education institutions around the world, Patricia has now settled in South Australia.