Osteoclasts resorb bone by a complex dynamic process that initially involves attachment, polarization and enzyme secretion, followed by their detachment and migration to new sites. In this study, we postulated that mineralized and osteoid bone matrix signal osteoclasts differently, resulting in the resorption of mineralized bone matrix only. We, therefore, compared the cytoplasmic distribution of cytoskeletal proteins F-actin and vinculin using confocal laser-scanning microscopy in osteoclasts cultured on mineralized and demineralized bone slices and correlated the observations with their functional activity. Our results have demonstrated significant differences in F-actin and vinculin staining patterns between osteoclasts cultured on mineralized bone matrix and those on demineralized bone matrix. In addition, the structural variations were accompanied by significant differences in bone resorbing activity between osteoclasts grown on mineralized bone matrix and those on demineralized bone matrix after 24 h of culture - resorption only occurring in mineralized bone but not in demineralized bone. These results indicated that failure of osteoid bone resorption is caused by perturbation of osteoclast polarization. (C) 1998 Chapman & Hall.