AIMS: To determine a possible mechanism to explain the presence of aluminium lines within fully calcified bone in aluminium-related osteomalacia. METHODS: Fifty five bone cases shown by bone biopsy to be aluminium-related osteomalacia were studied. In 38 specimens aluminium lines were identified within calcified bone by means of the Aluminon stain and a characteristic form of patchy mineralisation was seen within thickened osteoid seams. Five representative examples were analysed quantitatively by histomorphometry and electronprobe X-ray microanalysis and compared with five cases of vitamin D deficiency-related osteomalacia which also had patchy mineralisation. RESULTS: The patchy calcification occupied 40 +/- 8% (mean +/- SEM) of the osteoid and consisted of small focal deposits (less than 40 microns diameter), often (52%) around osteoid osteocytes (probably an underestimate of the association), and larger areas that extended to the aluminium lines at the underlying mineralisation front. Small and large mineralisation nuclei were seen ultrastructurally in the patchy calcification. Quantitative electronprobe X-ray microanalysis showed that calcium concentrations and calcium:phosphorus ratios in the mineralisation nuclei and in the superficial layer of the fully calcified bone of the aluminium-related osteomalacia cases were significantly less than values measured at similar sites in the vitamin D deficiency-related osteomalacia cases. Furthermore, aluminium could not be detected by means of this technique at the mineralisation front or along cement lines in these specimens. CONCLUSIONS: Calcification can occur in thickened osteoid seams in osteomalacia. It can begin around osteoid osteocytes as small deposits that enlarge within the osteoid and extend to the underlying mineralisation front or cement line where aluminium lines may become trapped. Complete calcification of osteoid could account for the presence of aluminium lines within fully calcified bone. The Aluminon stain appears to be a more sensitive method for the detection of aluminium in bone than electronprobe X-ray microanalysis.