Like the best of statesmen, bone is both strong and a little bit flexible. That's because it combines a soft, gel-like substance (collagen) with a stiff, strong one (mineral hydroxyapatite). Now, one team of engineers say they've figured out that balancing act in detail, elucidating how the molecular structure of bone fibers help them take advantage of the best of both worlds.
Fibers of collagen, strengthened with hydroxyapatite crystals, are the basic building blocks of bone. They're found in many different animal species, and they show up in skeleton bone, teeth and antlers.
Using a supercomputer, engineers from MIT calculated what those fibers look like at a nearly atomic level. They compared their fibers with data from previous studies of real bone, to check their computer-generated model was accurate. Then they carried out tests on their virtual fibers with different levels of collagen versus mineral, to see how they respond to stress and strain.