Gallium, a group IIIa metal, is known to interact with hydroxyapatite as well as the cellular components of bone. In recent studies we have found gallium to be a potent inhibitor of bone resorption that is clinically effective in controlling cancer-related hypercalcemia as well as the accelerated bone resorption associated with bone metastases. To begin to elucidate gallium's mechanism of action we have examined its effects on bone mineral properties. After short-term (14 days) administration to rats, gallium nitrate produced measurable changes in bone mineral properties. Using atomic absorption spectroscopy, low levels of gallium were noted to preferentially accumulate in regions of active bone formation, 0.54 +/- .07 microgram/mg bone in the metaphyses versus 0.21 +/- .03 microgram/mg bone in the diaphyses, P less than 0.001. The bones of treated animals had increased calcium content measured spectrophotometrically. Rats injected with radiolabeled calcium during gallium treatment had greater 45-calcium content compared to control animals. By wide-angle X-ray analyses, larger and/or more perfect hydroxyapatite was observed. The combined effects of gallium on bone cell function and bone mineral may explain its clinical efficacy in blocking accelerated bone resorption.