Gallium(III) is a new therapeutic agent for hypercalcemia. Ga3+ reduces osteoclast action, but how it inhibits the cell's physiology is unknown. In vivo, 7-12 microM Ga(III) reduces calcium release from bone, but surprisingly, 10-100 microM Ga3+ added to isolated avian osteoclasts did not reduce their degradation of L-(5-3H)-proline bone. 3H-proline labels bone collagen specifically, and collagenolysis is an excellent indicator of bone dissolution because collagen is the least soluble component of bone. Ga(III) greater than 100 microM inhibited osteoclasts in vitro, but also killed the cells. To resolve this apparent conflict, we measured 67Ga distribution between bone, cells, and media. Gallium binds avidly but slowly to bone fragments. One hundred micrograms of bone clears 60% of 1 microM gallium from 500 microliters of tissue culture medium, with steady state at greater than 24 h. Osteoclasts on bone inhibited gallium binding capacity approximately 40%, indicating a difference in available binding area and suggesting that osteoclasts protect their substrate from Ga binding. Less gallium binds to bone in serum-containing medium than in phosphate-buffered saline; 30% reduction of the affinity constant suggests that the serum containing medium competes with bone binding. Consequently, the effect of [Ga] on bone degradation was studied using accurately controlled amounts of Ga(III) pre-bound to the bone. Under these conditions, gallium sensitivity of osteoclasts is striking. At 2 days, 100 micrograms of bone pre-incubated with 1 ml of 1 microM Ga3+, with 10 pmoles Ga3+/micrograms bone, was degraded at 50% the rate of control bone; over 50 pM Ga3+/micrograms bone, resorption was essentially zero. In contrast, pre-treatment of bone with [Ga3+] as high as 15 microM had no significant effect on bone resorption rate beyond 3 days, indicating that gallium below approximately 150 pg/micrograms bone acts for a limited time and does not permanently damage the cells. We conclude that bone-bound Ga(III) from medium concentrations less than 15 microM inhibits osteoclasts reversibly, while irreversible toxicity occurs at solution [Ga3+] greater than 50 microM.