Osteoclasts are the principal resorptive cells of bone, yet their capacity to degrade collagen, the major organic component of bone matrix, remains unexplored. Accordingly, we have studied the bone resorptive activity of highly enriched populations of isolated chicken osteoclasts, using as substrate devitalized rat bone which had been labeled in vivo with L-[5-3H]proline or 45Ca, and bone-like matrix produced and mineralized in vitro by osteoblast-like rat osteosarcoma cells. When co-cultured with a radiolabeled substrate, osteoclast-mediated mineral mobilization reached a maximal rate within 2 h, whereas organic matrix degradation appeared more slowly, reaching maximal rate by 12-24 h. Thereafter, the rates of organic and inorganic matrix resorption were essentially linear and parallel for at least 6 d when excess substrate was available. Osteoclast-mediated degradation of bone collagen was confirmed by amino acid analysis. 39% of the solubilized tritium was recovered as trans-4-hydroxyproline, 47% as proline. 10,000 osteoclasts solubilized 70% of the total radioactivity and 65% of the [3H]-trans-4-hydroxyproline from 100 μg of 25-50-μm bone fragments within 5 d. Virtually all released tritium-labeled protein was of low molecular weight, 99% with M(r) ≤ 10,000, and 65% with M(r) ≤ 1,000. Moreover, when the 14% of resorbed [3H]proline-labeled peptides with M(r) ≥ 2,000 were examined for the presence of TC(A) and TC(B), the characteristic initial products of mammalian collagenase activity, none was detected by SDS PAGE. In addition, osteoclast-conditioned medium had no collagenolytic activity, and exogenous TC(A) and TC(B) fragments were not degraded by osteoclasts. On the other hand, osteoclast lysates have collagenolytic enzyme activity in acidic but not in neutral buffer, with maximum activity at pH 4.0. These data indicate that osteoclasts have the capacity to resorb the organic phase of bone by a process localized to the osteoclast and its attachment site. This process appears to be independent of secretion of neutral collagenase and probably reflects acid protease activity.