Dentin phosphoproteins are thought to have a primary role in the deposition of mineral on the collagen of dentin. In this study we determined the type of binding between collagen and phosphoproteins necessary for mineral formation onto collagen fibrils and whether the phosphate esters are required. Bovine dentin phosphophoryn or phosvitin from egg yolk were immobilized on reconstituted skin type I collagen fibrils by adsorption or by covalent cross-linking. In some samples the ester phosphate was removed from the covalently cross-linked phosphoproteins by treatment with acid phosphatase. All samples were incubated at 37 degrees C in metastable solutions that do not spontaneously precipitate. Reconstituted collagen fibrils alone did not induce mineral formation. The phosphoproteins adsorbed to the collagen fibrils desorbed when the mineralization medium was added, and mineral was not induced. The mineral induced by the cross-linked phosphoproteins was apatite, and the crystals were confined to the surface of the collagen fibrils. With decreasing medium saturation the time required for mineral induction increased. The interfacial tensions calculated for apatite formation by either phosphoprotein cross-linked to collagen were about the same as that for phosphatidic acid liposomes and hydroxyapatite. This similarity in values indicates that the nucleation potential of these highly phosphorylated surfaces is about the same. It is concluded that phosphoproteins must be irreversibly bound to collagen fibrils for the mineralization of the collagen network in solutions that do not spontaneously precipitate. The phosphate esters of phosphoproteins are required for mineral induction, and the carboxylate groups are not sufficient.