Characterization of the effects of x-ray irradiation on the hierarchical structure and mechanical properties of human cortical bone

Holly D. Barth, Elizabeth A. Zimmermann, Eric Schaible, Simon Y. Tang, Tamara Alliston, Robert O. Ritchie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

188 Scopus citations


Bone comprises a complex structure of primarily collagen, hydroxyapatite and water, where each hierarchical structural level contributes to its strength, ductility and toughness. These properties, however, are degraded by irradiation, arising from medical therapy or bone-allograft sterilization. We provide here a mechanistic framework for how irradiation affects the nature and properties of human cortical bone over a range of characteristic (nano to macro) length-scales, following x-ray exposures up to 630 kGy. Macroscopically, bone strength, ductility and fracture resistance are seen to be progressively degraded with increasing irradiation levels. At the micron-scale, fracture properties, evaluated using insitu scanning electron microscopy and synchrotron x-ray computed micro-tomography, provide mechanistic information on how cracks interact with the bone-matrix structure. At sub-micron scales, strength properties are evaluated with insitu tensile tests in the synchrotron using small-/wide-angle x-ray scattering/diffraction, where strains are simultaneously measured in the macroscopic tissue, collagen fibrils and mineral. Compared to healthy bone, results show that the fibrillar strain is decreased by ∼40% following 70 kGy exposures, consistent with significant stiffening and degradation of the collagen. We attribute the irradiation-induced deterioration in mechanical properties to mechanisms at multiple length-scales, including changes in crack paths at micron-scales, loss of plasticity from suppressed fibrillar sliding at sub-micron scales, and the loss and damage of collagen at the nano-scales, the latter being assessed using Raman and Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy and a fluorometric assay.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8892-8904
Number of pages13
Issue number34
StatePublished - Dec 2011


  • Collagen
  • Deformation
  • Human cortical bone
  • Tomography
  • Toughness
  • X-ray diffraction


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