Although sweets can help weaken teeth, sugars are apparently key to making bone strong. The extraordinary strength of bone depends on the complex, precise way in which its organic and inorganic components are ordered. Scientists had long thought that collagen and other proteins directly control the structure of bone. Now it turns out that sugary compounds are responsible instead—specifically, polysaccharides known as glycosaminoglycans and proteoglycans. Based on nuclear magnetic resonance imaging of horse bones, researchers conclude that polysaccharides help to guide the proper crystallization of bone minerals. Better understanding of how bone forms should alter the way osteoporosis and osteoarthritis are treated and perhaps lead to new ways of creating synthetic bone. This work may also strengthen the rationale for over-the-counter joint and bone pain remedies such as chondroitin, a glycosaminoglycan. Bone up on the research in the October 16 Chemistry of Materials.
This article was originally published with the title "Bone Sweat Bone" in Scientific American 298, 1, 31 (January 2008)