Bone is the most widespread mineralized tissue in vertebrates and its formation is orchestrated by specialized cells - the osteoblasts. Crystalline carbonated hydroxyapatite, an inorganic calcium phosphate mineral, constitutes a substantial fraction of mature bone tissue. Yet key aspects of the mineral formation mechanism, transport pathways and deposition in the extracellular matrix remain unidentified. Using cryo-electron microscopy on native frozen-hydrated tissues we show that during mineralization of developing mouse calvaria and long bones, bone-lining cells concentrate membrane-bound mineral granules within intracellular vesicles. Elemental analysis and electron diffraction show that the intracellular mineral granules consist of disordered calcium phosphate, a highly metastable phase and a potential precursor of carbonated hydroxyapatite. The intracellular mineral contains considerably less calcium than expected for synthetic amorphous calcium phosphate, suggesting the presence of a cellular mechanism by which phosphate entities are first formed and thereafter gradually sequester calcium within the vesicles. We thus demonstrate that in vivo osteoblasts actively produce disordered mineral packets within intracellular vesicles for mineralization of the extracellular developing bone tissue. The use of a highly disordered precursor mineral phase that later crystallizes within an extracellular matrix is a strategy employed in the formation of fish fin bones and by various invertebrate phyla. This therefore appears to be a widespread strategy used by many animal phyla, including vertebrates.
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